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#16 - JRL 7065
Toronto Star
February 156, 2003
Hurrying hard in Moscow
Hip Russians try `chilling out' with rocks and brooms But some men say curling is too much like housework

The average Canadian curler would feel more than a little bewildered walking into Ice Planet Moscow's first curling rink.

Coloured lights flash and spin, dance music blares from speakers and waitresses in orange miniskirts serve drinks on transparent plastic tables.

In the club's "chill-out" area, young Russians none much older than 30 drink elaborate cocktails and smoke hookah pipes. On the ice itself, would-be curlers dressed in tight jeans and tank tops awkwardly fling rocks down the ice while doing their best to keep on their feet.

The club's president, Artur Prashkovich, says it's no accident that Ice Planet resembles a dance club.

"It's meant to be modern and stylish. We're trying to show that this is a fashionable game, a game that's trendy."

Russia has long been an international powerhouse in winter sports, but few Russians have been exposed to curling and many are struggling to grasp how it is played.

In a recent story on Ice Planet, the daily Moscow Times described curling as "two teams whose members use a long brush to push a 19-kilogram stone toward a series of concentric circles, while members of the opposing team use their brushes to keep the stone away from the goal."

Even Prashkovich admits that most Russians find curling a little strange at first.

"People think it's kind of funny when they first see someone sweeping on the ice," he says.

"To them, it looks like housework. The men, especially, say they have no business sweeping, that it's women's work."

But thanks to a core group of devoted curlers and some recent successes in international competitions, rinks, rocks and brooms are getting some notice in Russia.

After more than a decade of effort, the Russian Curling Association says its promotion campaign seems finally to be making some headway.

"Ten years ago, almost nobody in Russia had ever heard of curling," says Yuri Andrianov, the association's vice-president. "Now, we have over 1,000 regular curlers in Russia and more are discovering the game every day."

Andrianov says Russia's first curling clubs opened more than a century ago in St. Petersburg and served foreign diplomats and upper-class Russians.

But after the Bolshevik Revolution, curling was discouraged because it was considered "a bourgeois pursuit," like golf or billiards. So, in the Soviet Union where sport, like everything else, was subjected to rigid central control curling never had a chance to develop.

After the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, a small group of Russians in St. Petersburg decided to revive the sport. They made a request to the World Curling Federation and received a gift of curling stones so they could practise.

Slowly, the curling community began to grow. A rink was opened in St. Petersburg, followed by another in Siberia and then one in the southern Volga region.

But the real boost came last year, when a Russian women's rink participated in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The inexperienced women failed to win a single match, but the rink with an average age of only 19 showed steady improvement.

More important, many of the matches were televised, giving many Russians their first glimpse of the sport.

The women continued to improve and played surprisingly well at December's European Curling Championships in Grindelwald, Switzerland, finishing in fourth place with a 6-5 record.

At January's Winter Universiade in Tarvisio, Italy, the Russians took their first gold medal in international competition, defeating a Canadian rink from Thunder Bay's Lakehead University by a score of 11-2.

Andrianov, whose wife Olga Andrianova coaches the women, credits their success with helping to popularize the sport in Russia.

"Curling is going through a boom in Russia and this is thanks to Olga and her girls," he says, patting his wife on the back.

The former basketball coach had never even seen a curling match before she took on the coaching position.

"The first time I saw the game, I thought: `What is this?'" she says.

"But later I realized the depth of the game that it's a very intelligent sport, a beautiful sport that demands teamwork."

The women have qualified for April's World Curling Championships in Winnipeg and Andrianova is hoping they can build on past achievements.

If they continue to succeed, there likely will be many more converts, like 31-year-old Anna Cheburaskina and 30-year-old Dimitri Potapov, who played their first match with some co-workers at Ice Planet on a recent Saturday night.

"We saw the game during the Olympics and got very excited about playing it," Potapov said minutes after walking off the ice. "We had such a good time, I'm definitely coming back."

For Cheburaskina, curling is the perfect way to unwind after a week at the office.

"In a couple of years, I think, this is going to be one of the most popular sports in Russia," she said, "because Russian winters are so long and sometimes people just need to escape and have some fun."

Michael Mainville is a Canadian journalist based in Moscow.

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