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Inside the Rings: Curling? Shoot me now

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Curling fans, look away now. You are not going to like this.

But the rest of us, well, LOL.

I'd rather pull out my own teeth than watch more Olympic curling. Who let this sport — and I truly hesitate to use the word — into the games? Have those responsible since been strapped into chairs and forced to watch endless reruns of the Le Gruyere European Curling Championships? Sorry, I missed those. Were they as cheesy as they sound?

Alpine skiers, snowboarders, not to mention those most daring of devils, the lugers, bobsledders and skeleton racers, tear ligaments, fracture bones, risk life and limb for their Olympic medals. The cross-country Olympians are fitter than butchers' dogs and the figure skaters wear silly costumes without the slightest hint of embarrassment. Respect.

Curlers come to the fight with Tupperware boxes of tasty snacks. I kid you not.

After 90 minutes of ... action doesn't seem quite the right word ... they stop for a picnic. Honest.

The Chinese women brought strawberries for their mid-match feast Monday. Their opponents, the Russians, ate together from a plastic bowl of various fruits. The Swiss had plates of sliced melon, prettily arranged like the rays of the sun, with a pile of chopped bananas in the middle. Canada's captain — they call them "skip" in curling — even had time for a hot cup of tea before getting back to sliding a few more rocks.

Of course, Tour de France cyclists feed in competition, too. But that's because they burn up 5,000 calories or more in a day. Curlers don't have that excuse.

I actually came to curling with the best of intentions, more than intrigued and ready to be wowed by an activity — again, having trouble using the words 'Olympic sport' — that has been generating a fair amount of buzz, yes, buzz, at these Winter Games. In coming to Canada, where rock-hurling is a big deal, Olympic curling has come home.

The crowds have been loud and partisan. During women's matches Monday, Swiss fans clanging bells had a decibel duel with a Russian armed with a hunting horn. The noise is such that there's been a bit of hand-wringing — wearing nice warm mittens, of course — among curlers who take etiquette seriously and feel that the rowdiness is becoming a bit too much. Which, in itself, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about curling.

The Norwegian men's trousers — multicolored, diamond-patterned things — have been drawing attention, too, most likely because they are the most interesting thing happening on the ice. A Facebook page dedicated to "The Norwegian Olympic Curling Team's Pants" listed 349,401 fans on Monday evening and the number was climbing. Don't these people know that John Daly long since made such fashion statements old-hat in golf?

When four bagpipers and a drummer in kilts led the teams out for competition, I thought, "Cool, this promises to be fun."

I was impressed by how surefooted the curlers are on the ice, by the low crouch from which they launch their granite rocks — you need to be super-supple to get as low as they do — and, most of all, by their good-humored camaraderie and sportsmanship. Teams shake hands, wishing each other "good game, good game" before they start. The Chinese and U.S. men swapped laughs before they went broom-to-broom.

But you shouldn't get an Olympic medal just for being nice.

Curlers will tell you that I completely missed the point. They'll say that furiously brushing the ice to make the rocks curl and finish where skip wants them is more strenuous than it looks. "They're sweeping to 80 to 90 percent of their maximum heart rate," claimed a spokeswoman for the British (in fact, largely Scottish) team.

They will also tell you that curling is like chess on ice, packed full of strategy, skill and mental endurance. To reach the medal round, teams play 10 games, so "you are having to concentrate for 800 minutes to get your gold medal," explained Ken Tralnberg, a Canadian who won silver at the 2002 Olympics and now coaches the Swiss women.

Sounds tough. I guess that explains the picnic.

Curlers who ignored the health warning at the top and still read this column can vent their spleen by dropping me an e-mail. The address is at the bottom.

Anything to keep you off the Olympic ice.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.