Burning With Olympic Fire

The Winter Olympics are an amazing conglomeration of sports and an even more amazing spectacle. You've got everything from something called skeleton to an event that combines cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. You've got the beauty and grace of figure skating and then you've got the mayhem of hockey. You have the speed of the luge and the precision of ice dancing. But where, you ask, is the circus? Where is the Commedia dell'Arte? Where are the fireflies turning into stars and the men turning into kites? Don't worry, they're there, you just need to look at the opening and closing ceremonies.

Two billion people worldwide are expected to watch the opening ceremonies on February 10th. The coordinators are determined to create something worthy of all that attention. The theme is Sparks of Passion and the press release says, "Passion like an inextinguishable fire, that the Sparks will call forth with their own energy charge, infecting the stadium public along with TV viewers all over the world." Given the current concerns about a possible pandemic flu, "infecting" is perhaps not the best word choice however you can't fault the enthusiasm shown here. The plan is for super fast skaters to zoom around looking like superheroes with sparks and fire flying out of their heads. Vittorio Comi has designed a propulsion system that will create this effect and will, according to the press release, "be tested for the first time ever, at these Olympic Winter Games." I'm hoping that is some sort of translation error and devices that will create flames up to two meters long have already been tested. On the other hand the games are in Italy this year, home of the city that gave us fights between lions and gladiators oh lo these many years ago so maybe they really haven't been tested.

As interesting as the opening ceremonies may be it is the closing ceremonies on the 26th of February that I'm looking forward to. Of course the basic protocols of all Olympic closing ceremonies, such as putting out the flame, will be included but the part that sounds wonderfully exciting is the pageantry redolent of the circus and the carnival. Clowns will wear costumes from Fellini's film The Clowns. I hear these costumes still "give off an air of poetry, even today." I'm not entirely sure whether we'll be able to sense that air over the television but it will be fun to try.

A fascinating cast of characters will be performing including mermaids, acrobats, Andrea Bocelli, and apparently entire Italian circuses, including high wire acts. Avril Lavigne will sing during an eight-minute segment designed to illustrate the handoff of the games from Italy to Canada, home of the 2010 Winter Olympics. How exactly will a man become a kite and fireflies or glowworms become stars? I don't know but I am eager to find out.

In between the opening and closing spectaculars will be some sporting events. You'll probably want to watch some of those also, just so you can keep up your end of the conversation around the office water cooler. I suggest you really get to know curling, a sport that is a little like golf and a little like bowling and maybe even a little tiddlywinks or horseshoes but played on the ice. Or possibly it's more like croquet on ice. Some people call it chess on ice. Everyone does agree it is a game played on the ice so maybe we should just stop there. If you learn a couple of facts about this sport and toss them around in an offhand manner everyone will think you are the king of Olympic facts.

Start by watching some of these videos. Immerse yourself in the frantic screaming of the athletes and the roar of the crowd. When you're nice and psyched up memorize these facts. There are four members to a team and the skip, who is the captain of the team and makes the most difficult shots, is in charge of tactics.

Shoes are made of leather. One sole is steel or Teflon for easy sliding and one is rubber for the opposite effect.

The stone weighs about 42 pounds and comes from Ailsa Crag in Scotland, the only place where you can quarry the type of granite needed for curling. The price of a new stone is around $1000.

Like many other sports involving the movement of heavy objects, curling began in Scotland in the sixteenth century. Historically the bristles of the brooms used to smooth the ice were made from straw and the hair of various animals, including the boar. Today they are mostly made from synthetics although some people still really like straw bristles.

Each round is called an end. Game play lasts for ten ends, unless there is a tie, in which case play is extended.

Best of all, there's something called a hog line. There is also a hack line and an important area called the house.

There you go; that's all you need to act like a know-it-all. Go forth and do me proud.