In January 1991, when she was 73 years old but looked about 50,
Sophie Olafson Wallace was preparing ham-and-cheese sandwiches
at the snack bar of the Granite Curling Club in Seattle when she
overheard two men groaning about the ancient ice sport's absence
from the Olympic Winter Games. "We've got to get 25 countries,"
Wallace recalls one of the men asserting. "Then it'll be an
This is an article from the Jan. 26, 1998 issue
Inspired, Wallace set aside her culinary ministrations and
approached the men, one of whom was the president of the World
Curling Federation (WCF), Gunther Hummelt. Although curling was
as beloved by Scots as oatcakes and was perennially one of the
top attractions on Canadian television, it had never been very
popular outside its traditional heartlands. Players in only 23
countries had taken up the sport.
The old Soviet bloc had ignored curling. The nearest U.S. rink
to the Granite Club was 1,700 miles to the east, in Chicago. And
official Olympic inclusion--the sacred quest of every sport from
Frisbee to fly casting--seemed even more remote, although
curling had been "demonstrated" time and again, dating back to
the first Winter Games, in Chamonix in 1924. But a light had
gone on in Wallace's head, and a smile crept across her unlined
"I walked over," she recalls, "and I said, 'Excuse me,
gentlemen, but have you ever tried to get Iceland? They have the
right name for the game.'"
Wallace had, in curling parlance, drawn shot rock to the button.
The men digested her proposition. "Half an hour later," she
says, "they came over and said, 'How'd you like to be our
ambassador to Iceland?' I said, 'Pay our way? O.K!'"
Seven years later Wallace, who now looks to be about 49, recalls
this Norse saga on the eve of curling's historic inauguration as
a full-fledged gold medal Olympic event, in February in Japan.
She and her husband, Thomas, have made half a dozen trips to
Iceland, all but the first at their own expense. They have
elucidated the intricacies of curling to unschooled skips and
sweepers and have explained to querulous customs officers why
two senior citizens would include among their luggage a pair of
Along the way, the ambassadors have prodded Iceland into
membership in the WCF, despite the fact that the country has not
a single sheet of useful natural ice. As Wallace admits in one
of her Granite Curling Club monthly newsletters, "Progress has
been very slow because of a lack of leaders, illness, volcanic
eruptions and an economic slump."
Still, the ambassadors press on. About 15 eager novices practice
determinedly on an outdoor hockey rink in the Icelandic city of
Akureyri, according to Wallace, "on nights when it isn't raining
and the wind's not blowing too severely" (which isn't often). A
couple of Icelanders have been flown to Canada for intensive
instruction; a curling arena is in the planning stage in
Akureyri; and Reykjavik, the nation's capital, is considering
converting an abandoned fish-processing plant into a facility
for ice hockey, figure skating and curling.
What's more, thanks to Appleseeds like the Wallaces, the WCF has
31 member nations, including such winter-sports hotbeds as
Mexico, Australia, South Korea and the U. S. Virgin Islands.
This worldwide clamor--and Hummelt's impassioned wooing of the
Olympic politburo and the Nagano organizing committee--has
cleared the ice for the sport to slide smoothly, proudly,
finally, into the Olympic house.
Nine countries will compete in Japan in men's and women's
curling. The U.S., which has won the men's world championship
four times since 1965 but never the women's title, has qualified
in both divisions. The U.S. rinks (i.e., teams) were determined
at a tournament in Duluth, Minn., in early December.
There will be no mixed-sex curling event in Nippon, to the
sadness of the Wallaces, who won the U.S. tournament in that
category in 1977, teaming with their son Garth and his wife,
Janet Spencer, to become the only family foursome ever to win a
U.S. championship. Augmenting their disappointment is the fact
that Sophie recently injured her left knee while laced to her
granddaughter in a three-legged race and has been advised by her
husband not to curl for a while.
Iceland won't be curling in Japan, either. Despite the cockeyed
name the Vikings gave the island--most of the year, Iceland is
green and Greenland is icy--Iceland had never seen a game of
curling until the Wallaces, stones in their suitcases, hauled up
in 1991. It will take Icelanders awhile to reach Olympian caliber.
"They wanted a winter sport that was not violent," Thomas
Wallace says. "Remember, it's just a small country, with one
nine-hundredth the population of the U.S. And they were looking
for a winter sport that disabled people could do, even if they
had only one arm or were lame."
Confident that curling fit the bill exactly, the Wallaces opened
the shipping crates that cradled their stones, which had been
quarried on the Scottish islet of Ailsa Craig. The treasures
were as round and squat as pumpkins, as polished as sapphires
and worth $350 each. "They were horrified," Sophie Wallace
recalls of the Icelanders. "They looked at the rocks and said,
'This is what you play with?' And they laughed about the brooms."
They laughed, of course, in Icelandic, which was
incomprehensible to Thomas but not to Sophie, whose penniless
parents had abandoned Iceland for Canada in 1905. She had grown
up in the fertile farmland of Manitoba speaking her parents'
language, starring as a catcher in a fiercely competitive
fast-pitch softball league and teaching at one-room schoolhouses
before being literally picked up on a Winnipeg street corner by
dapper young Tom. Smitten, she accepted his invitation for a
ride to a dance and wound up paying his way through medical
She was 40 when she started curling seriously, in Seattle, where
she and her husband had moved because of his health. The
ex-catcher fell in love with the rock-and-broom game. "Golly, it
is fun," she declares. "There are no hard feelings--you start
with a handshake and finish with a handshake."
"A lot of people can't handle that at first," Thomas notes.
"After a match, you have to go up to the bar and sit with the
people who just beat you."
"It gives you a lot of aerobics," Sophie says of curling. It is
undoubtedly the same line of argument she used in Iceland back
in 1991, addressing the first group of proto-curlers, nearly all
of whom were her long-lost Olafson cousins. "One game," her
husband says, "equals one game of tennis. It's the sweeping
that's the real workout."
The sweeping, a feature of curling that may appear comical to
untutored outsiders, melts the ice for an instant and can enable
a shot to slide a dozen feet farther than it otherwise might
have. Giving the handle of the stone a quarter turn just before
releasing it can make it curve three or four feet from a
straight line, providing the newest Olympic sport with its
splendid difficulty as well as its name. Playing--and
selling--curling is not easy, as the secretary of the WCF, Mike
Thomson, explains by phone from Edinburgh: "It's not like
football, where kids can just kick a ball around."
You may be wondering about the Virgin Islands. In 1988, when he
entered the two-man bobsled competition at the Calgary Olympics
at the age of 50, John Foster, a real estate broker from St.
Thomas, was taught how to curl by Canadian friends. Shortly
thereafter, he designated himself president of the U.S. Virgin
Islands Curling Association and joined the WCF. The islands'
Olympic qualification, he says, is just a matter of time. "We've
got the wet banana leaves laid out," Foster reports, "and we're
sliding on those."
Meanwhile, back in Iceland, Sophie Wallace's disciples rock on.
"I am sure we will be in the Olympics," says one of Iceland's
dedicated curlers, Gisli Kristinsson. "But I don't know when."
Kristinsson, a 47-year-old architect, finished second in his
country's inaugural curling championship, in 1996. He had been
to Brandon, Manitoba, in 1995 and had seen the sport's world
championship tournament, the Silver Broom. All the sliding,
sweeping and screaming convinced him that, he says, "curling is
really very fun."
Still, enthusiasm can carry a sportsman only so far. "We have
one main problem," Kristinsson says. "Curling is an indoor
sport. In Iceland, we have only outdoor ice."
Allen Abel will be covering the Winter Olympics in Nagano for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.