Sunday, February 28, 2010

Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life: How curling's Kevin Martin explains the Canadian psyche

Everyone will be focusing on hockey for most of today, but I wanted to say a few words in praise of Canadian curling skip Kevin Martin before talking about the imminent Hockeypocalypse. For me, it was fantastic seeing Martin pick up his first Olympic gold medal in a hard-fought game against the Norwegians yesterday, the same country that beat him in the final in 2002.

To me, Martin is the quintessential embodiment of Canada. He doesn't look like an elite athlete; in fact he looks rather like a middle-aged insurance executive. He plays a sport not many people worldwide have heard of, and far fewer understand. Plenty of Winter Olympics sports have exposure issues, but most of them are simple enough to understand and appreciate on first glance when people do tune in, whether it's the high-speed thrills of bobsled or luge, the ridiculous hang time found in snowboard cross or the halfpipe, or the artistry of figure skating. To the uneducated, men's curling in particular often looks like a bunch of middle-aged men throwing rocks for some reason, which doesn't exactly appeal on first glance.

Martin in competition.
When you dig beneath the surface, though, there's much more to curling. It's an intensely strategic game, requiring the ability to think ahead as well as precision and power in throwing. There's much more to it than just throwing rocks.

Similarly, the popular perception of Canada is often that we're just a nation of polite guys who live in the cold and enjoy hockey to the exclusion of all else. Those stereotypes have some truth to them, just as curling is partially about sliding rocks down the ice. As with curling, there's much, much more to the country though, and one great benefit to these Olympics is they've shown off other elements of Canada to the world, including the lovely weather we often have on the west coast, our enjoyment of coming together to party and our talents in and enthusiasm for a wide range of sports.

Within his world, Martin stands out. He's been called "the Michael Jordan of curling" by American skip John Shuster, and it's a pretty apt description. Sure, there are plenty of differences in the sports they play, but both K-Mart and MJ share that killer instinct, and you don't want them up against you with the game on the line. The New York Times called Martin "a rock star", and the comparison is also pretty fair; he's a Canadian legend, and one who's beginning to attract interest on a wider stage. The world's starting to gain interest in curling, particularly the blogging world (thanks in large parts to the efforts of Dan Levy and Josh Zerkle, and they recognize that despite the tremendous talents of curlers from across the world, Martin is still at the top.

As the Olympics have gone on, Martin has gone from a Canadian curiosity to a figure with a significant profile on the world stage. The country has undergone a similar transformation, from "Canadians, aren't they cute" to leading the Olympics in gold medals and receiving a lot of world attention. Both Martin and Canada have caused people to look beneath the surface, and that's a good thing. We're more than just simply a nation of beer-drinking, hockey-loving hosers, even if we are that too. The world's starting to realize that, and Kevin Martin is a reflection of how far we've come. In fact, when you conduct a Google search for "Kevin Martin" today, the first five results are about the curler, with the sixth about the former FCC chairman and the seventh about the NBA player. Not bad at all for Canada and curling.

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