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Pressure on Canada in popular sport

By Jeffrey Jones

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canada are the perennial team to beat in Olympic curling and the 2010 Games are no different with Kevin Martin, one of the sport's most successful veterans, leading the men's team after sitting out four years ago.

Martin, known as "The Bear," aims to slide his way to his first gold medal in his third Olympic appearance, having secured his team's spot in December with a decisive win.

Edmonton-based Martin, 43, first qualified for the Olympics when the sport of brooms and sliding stones was still a demonstration event.

He won a silver medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, but was edged out of the 2006 Games by Brad Gushue, who won the tournament.

The home crowd at the Vancouver Olympic Center will also be firmly behind the women's team led by Cheryl Bernard, who had a narrow win in December over Shannon Kleibrink to earn her team's Olympic berth.

She will have her work cut out for her as she looks to unseat 2006 gold medalists Sweden, whose skip, eight-times world champion Anette Norberg, is competing in her fourth Olympics.

There is also a new threat in the women's competition, from China.

Led by skip Wang Bingyu, 25, their rink beat Sweden last March to become the first squad from an Asian country to win a world championship.

The Chinese team have been training and competing in Canada under the tutelage of Canadian coach Dan Rafael.

FAN PRESSURE

The Canadian curlers will be under as much fan pressure as the country's ice hockey teams in Vancouver. Nowhere does their sport have a bigger profile than in Canada, where nearly 730,000 people are registered players -- more than in the rest of the world combined.

Although it originated in Scotland, curling is a long-established part of the Canadian cultural fabric, especially in the western provinces. Rinks are a center of social life in many communities during the long winter.

Rocks, brooms and ice often make their way into Canadian literature and films.

This year, curling's profile has been growing in the United States too, as The Simpsons animated television show celebrates the sport by having Homer and Marge compete at the Olympics, and U.S. teams promote "Hurry Hard" brand condoms. The name stems from a familiar refrain on the ice as skips urge players to sweep more aggressively to control the speed and direction of a rock.

The U.S. men's curling team picked up some National Football League (NFL) kudos by naming San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis as their honorary captain.

Davis will not be competing but Minnesota-based U.S. skip John Shuster, a bronze medalist in 2006, is hoping his experience will put him on the podium in Vancouver. However, he is the only curler on the team who competed in Turin.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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