Bernard makes curling very attractive

Cheryl Bernard

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The local Province newspaper has already declared these Olympics the "Hottie Games," although pretty much every Olympics since the invention of television has held the same title.

Tsk-tsk all you want, but the objectification of athletes (of both genders) is as old and as constant as the Olympic flame itself. NBC wouldn't be averaging 26 million viewers a night if Lindsey Vonn, Evan Lysacek, and Tanith Belbin didn't look like they do. No sense in pretending otherwise. It's always been that way.

There is one noteworthy difference between the Vancouver Games and all others, though.

One of the breakout stars doesn't wear short skirts like Belbin, didn't do a swimsuit layout like Vonn, and doesn't own skintight racing outfits like Julia Mancuso.

Her name is Cheryl Bernard, and she's 43 years old. And an insurance broker from Alberta. And a stepmother of two. And a curler.

Forget the traditional flexible figure skater. There's a middle-aged stone slider making half of Canada and a growing number of Americans go wild.

Bernard is the Canadian curling cougar. Sarah Palin on ice (bipartisan division). The Chicago Tribune has dubbed her a "sex symbol." The Globe and Mail said she should co-star on "Cougar Town" with Courteney Cox. ESPN's Bill Simmons went for the term "Curlgar."

And yes, this phenomenon is at some level an insult to Bernard's curling skills – but, hey, for the first time it's a geometry-obsessed 40-something who wears basic black pants and a zipped-up, long-sleeve team jacket, not some 18-year-old ice dancer in a midriff-baring number.

Does this count as progress in feminism? Maybe not, but I went to the curling facility on Tuesday anyway to ask Bernard what she thought of the sensation she was causing on both sides of the border.

She claimed she didn't know about it.

"No," Bernard said shaking her head. "I have heard lots about how fit the players are, and how fit the men's players are, and I think that's a good thing for curling."

She said she didn't mind that people were checking her out. She looked amused at the idea.

"It's hard work [staying in shape], so that's fine for them to notice," Bernard said. "I think it's good for the sport, and I think they are noticing it throughout all the players."

In fairness: The men of curling are winning their own packs of ogling fans. Bandana-wearing Chris Plys was named "Olympic Stud of the Day" by Entertainment Weekly. The old image of beer chuggers playing ice shuffleboard is getting crushed.

Almost everyone works out these days. Bernard isn't the only one turning heads. Great Britain's women's skip is a 19-year-old with two-tone hair. The Russians have their own Internet fan clubs. There are rumors of topless pictures of one curler.

Looks aside, the sport is hypnotic. Mock it all you want, but if the thing is on television at a sports bar, it sucks you in. And in Vancouver it's almost always on. The matches start at 9 a.m. locally and run live until about 11 p.m. Then TV rebroadcasts any of the 12 contests overnight. It's like the first two days of the NCAA tournament, over and over and over.

In Canada, the games are shown on the big HD screens at restaurants that you'd expect to be reserved for skiing or something more active. People crowd around outdoor televisions showing a match. On Sunday, the press room of Canada Hockey Place had five of its six TVs dedicated to curling and just one to an actual hockey game. When they tried to change one, two Chinese guys vocally complained.

You can't get a ticket to the 6,000-seat facility, even for the morning sessions. Brokers work the streets outside selling at marked-up prices. Inside, the fans sing, chant, hammer cow bells and wave flags. And drink, of course. Even (especially) at 9 a.m. The Danish women's skip cried over the weekend because the Canadian fans were too rowdy.

The damn thing is almost as big as hockey.

Which is how Bernard became an overnight star. There is simply no one getting more airtime at these Games than her.

Unlike other winter athletes, curlers don't wear helmets, and their events don't take 53 seconds to complete. They often have two games a day, and the games can run up to 3½ hours each. With little to no actual action, the cameras mostly focus on the skip standing around looking at angles, contemplating shots, and staring down a stone as it slides down the ice. In this tournament, Bernard has been a brilliant player, routinely hitting clutch shots.

And just like that, Bernard said, she can hardly go out in public without getting mobbed.

"Yeah, it's bizarre," acknowledged Bernard, who normally spends her time running an insurance business and a family. "It's hard to get through places and crowds. It's kind of amazing. [I'm] not used to it."

Bernard said she is focused on leading Canada through the tournament. There's a great deal of pressure. She senses the sport is playing to bigger audiences than expected, but it's hard to tell. She has to curl all day for people to be able to watch her on TV all those hours, she notes.

So she just smiles when she's told that she's got everyone buzzing, that she's the newest sensation in the Olympics' oldest game – attractive athletes.

"It's amazing," she said. "I'm glad for curling. Maybe we can get some young people into it."

At least we know they're watching.

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