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Curling-Canadian curlers ready to rock Sochi

Sweden skip Margaretha Sigfridsson (C) shouts as teammate Maria Wennerstrom (L) sweeps during their page playoff game against Switzerland at the World Women’s Curling Championships in Lethbridge, Alberta in Voss in this file photo from March 23, 2012. (REUTERS:Andy Clark/Files)

Sweden skip Margaretha Sigfridsson (C) shouts as teammate Maria Wennerstrom (L) sweeps during their page playoff game against Switzerland at the World Women’s Curling Championships in Lethbridge, Alberta in Voss in this file photo from March 23, 2012. (REUTERS:Andy Clark/Files)

Canada and Sweden will seek to complete curling Olympic gold medal hat-tricks at the Sochi Olympics while trying to nudge the ancient niche sport a little closer to the modern mainstream.

A game played with brooms, curling will never sweep spectators off their feet the same way the downhill racers will but every four years the sporting world renews its fascination with the medieval game that has surprisingly produced some of the Olympics’ highest television ratings.

With nearly one million registered curlers in Canada, more than the rest of the world combined, the sport enjoys a high profile in the country with competitions routinely attracting sold-out crowds and top television ratings.

But along with that popularity come expectations.

Only the Canadian men’s and women’s ice hockey teams in Sochi will be under greater pressure than the curlers to bring home gold.

Since curling was added to the Olympic lineup at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Canadian rinks have won medals at each edition in the men’s and women’s events.

CANADA DOMINANT

On the men’s side Canada has been the dominant force, taking silver in Nagano and Salt Lake City and gold in Turin and Vancouver.

The torch has now been passed to Brad Jacobs who will try to skip Canada to a third straight gold in Sochi while Jennifer Jones will bid to put the Canadian women on top of the podium for the first time since Nagano and end a run of silver and bronze medal finishes.

Jacobs’s fist-pumping foursome head to Russia as the title favourites having marched through the Canadian Olympic trials - considered by many a higher quality competition than the Olympics - undefeated, including a victory over reigning Olympic champion Kevin Martin.

“We’re a confident group of guys right now and there’s no reason not to be after winning the Olympic trials out of Canada,” said Jacobs.

“You win that and you should be very confident that you can bring back the gold for Canada and we’re looking forward to getting out there and hopefully strutting our stuff and playing like we did at the trials.”

The Canadians, however, certainly won’t be the only rink strutting their stuff at Sochi’s Ice Cube Curling Centre.

Thomas Ulsrud’s Norwegian foursome, silver medal winners in 2010, are back and ready to turn heads again with more of the outrageous, eye-popping outfits that turned the quirky rink into instant cult figures.

The fun-loving Norwegians became social media darlings in Vancouver with their harlequin-patterned pants and have promised more sartorial surprise in Sochi.

Niklas Edin’s Swedish foursome may not be as flashy as the Norwegians but will fancy their gold medal chances having beaten Jacobs’s Canada rink on their home ice in Victoria, British Columbia, to win the world championship.

Britain will not lack experience in their push for a podium with double world champion skip David Murdoch joining forces with Tom Brewster’s rink to form a Scottish dream team, that flashed their potential with a bronze medal placing at last year’s worlds.

SWEDISH HAT-TRICK?

Over in the women’s draw, Anette Norberg, who skipped Sweden to back-to-back golds in Turin and Vancouver, will not be in Sochi, leaving it to Margaretha Sigfridsson’s European championship rink to make it three in a row for the Tre Kronor.

World champion Eve Muirhead and her Scottish foursome could be Britain’s best shot at Sochi gold while China will look for a return to the podium following a breakthrough bronze in Vancouver.

“We would be happy if we get a medal,” said Sigfridsson. “We know we have the ability to play for gold as well but we know it will be very tough and we are willing to do our best there and the team that has the best week will of course win.”

Curling itself could be the big winner in Sochi.

With each Olympics the sport has seen its profile raised attracting more and more fans, among them rockers Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi who reportedly have on occasion rented ice time and picked up the brooms.

The world’s most famous curler, however, could well be Homer Simpson, the beer-swilling, doughnut-guzzling cartoon character who chased his Olympic dreams in an episode ahead of the Vancouver Winter Games by curling.

Here are the main facts about the curling competition at the Sochi Winter Olympics:

The competition:

Curling is played by two four-member teams, called rinks, on a sheet of ice 44.5 metres long and 4.75 metres wide. The aim is to deliver a polished stone, made of granite and with a handle on top, as close as possible to the centre of a series of concentric circles, known as the tee, and to knock away the stones of the opposing team at the same time.

Team members sweep the ice in front of the stone as it glides, to keep the ice clean in the running path of the stone, speed it up or influence its direction.

A game consists of 10 “ends” in which each team delivers eight stones — two per person. A team score a point for each stone that is closer to the centre circle than their opponents’ best stone.

The men’s and women’s tournaments will each feature 10 teams.

History:

Curling originated in Scotland in the 16th century, although a similar game was played in the Netherlands, and was originally played on frozen ponds and lochs. The first curling club was formed in 1716 in Kilsyth. The sport was introduced to Canada by Scottish soldiers in about 1760 and now the vast majority of the world’s curlers live in Canada where the sport is played by close to a million people, according to the Canadian Curling Association.

Curling was included as a demonstration sport at six Olympics before finally being granted medals status for the 1998 Games.

The venue:

The Ice Cube Curling Centre features a combination of smooth and well-rounded contours reminiscent of the shape of the curling stone, which is accentuated by the bright polished surfaces of its facade.

The contenders

Canadian rinks have won medals at every Olympics in both the men’s and women’s competitions and arrive in Sochi as the gold medal favourite.

Brad Jacobs will try to follow Brad Gushue (2006) and Kevin Martin (2010) and skip Canada to a third straight gold in the men’s event while Jennifer Jones will bid to put the Canadian women on top of the podium for the first time since the 1998 Nagano Games and end a run of silver and bronze medal finishes.

World champions Sweden skipped by Niklas Edin will also fancy their gold medal chances while Thomas Ulsrud’s Norwegian foursome, who grabbed the spotlight in Vancouver with their outrageous harlequin-patterned pants, are expected to be among the medal contenders.

Anette Norberg, who skipped Sweden to back-to-back gold in Turin and Vancouver, will not be in Sochi leaving it to Margaretha Sigfridsson’s rink to make it three in a row for the Tre Kronor.

World champion Eve Muirhead and her Scottish foursome could be Britain’s best shot at Sochi gold while China will look for a return to the podium following a breakthrough bronze in Vancouver.