Pinerolo pinball

PINEROLO, Italy -- Italy is going crazy for Eskimo lawn bowling. Except here it's more that they're going nuts for Inuit bocce ball.

Five million Italians, it has been reported, watched curling on live television the other day. It was the top-drawing Olympic sport of the entire day on home country TV.

"We have 200 curlers in Italy and they're telling us we have five million people watching curling on TV,'' said Rodger Schmidt, the Canadian who took on the impossible task of creating competitive Italian host teams for the Olympics four and a half years ago.

"What maybe even more incredible is that when Italy won their first men's game in an extra end the other day against Germany, they showed the entire game on TV the next morning and it drew two million,'' said Don Chevrier, the longtime Canadian broadcaster who calls the games with Winnipeg's Don Duguid for CNBC.

"We put it on as a joke between figure skatings,'' said Italian broadcaster Dario Puppo, who calls the games.

"We discovered people actually want to watch it!''

"It's so close to bocce,'' said Puppo, trying to explain the phenomenon. "People start to figure it out. Everyone watch!''

This is such a phenomenon Canadian coach Toby McDonald says they may have to declare the Italians honorary Newfoundlanders.

"Half of Newfoundland isn't working - the other half,'' jokes the former Brier winner who is coach of Brad Gushue's Canadian crew. "There hasn't been a fish caught since the Olympics began.''

That doesn't explain the TV numbers coming in from the rest of Canada, though.

Back home, reports Don Wittman of CBC, the games he's calling are drawing Brier-type numbers on Olympic affiliate TSN despite the time of day they're being shown.

"We're getting reports here of 300,000 people watching back home for games which come on at 3 a.m.. For games which start at 8 a.m. in Toronto, we're hearing the numbers are around 500,000.''

And in the U.S., where NBC isn't all that thrilled with their ratings from over here, curling is doing just fine.

"Salt Lake quadrupled the numbers from Nagano and we're hearing they've doubled again here despite the time zones and the fact the women's team has only won one game. We've done 28 games and more than half have been on live,'' said Chevrier.

It doesn't look all that successful on TV because half a 2,100-seat building is empty. But this, I'm told, is because the organizing committee sold tickets to overseas brokers forcing them to take tickets to 'B' events to get ones to 'A' events like open ceremonies, figure skating and hockey. Those tickets aren't being used here.

That and few people in this area have seemed to care about any of the events anywhere here. The venues are small and very few fans have bought tickets anywhere.

"To have those kinds of TV numbers, the people who are watching are obviously in the south,'' says Schmidt, a native of Melville, Sask.

Four years ago, the host Italians hired Schmidt, who played Canada's Russ Howard in the 1987 World Curling Championship final representing Germany, to develop a host team.

There is no curling in Italy.

"We built a two-sheeter in an old bus barn by blowing one wall out,'' said Schmidt of the first two-sheet rink on the good side of the Italian Alps in Cortina d'Ampezzo.

"About two hours to the West of Cortina we now have another two-sheeter built with a big tent and a compressor.''

Schmidt's Italian women's team is skipped by a 21 year old and his men's team by a 22 year old.

"We created them,'' he said. "When we started we didn't have enough bodies for one junior team.

"I don't know that it means that suddenly communities in Italy are going to start building curling rinks and people are starting to take up the sport,'' said Schmidt.

"If nothing else it means the sport has been accepted and has gained some respect.

'I think it's the bocce thing'

"I think it's the bocce thing,'' he said of the lawn bowling-like game which is part of the Italian culture. They can relate to it.''

When they announced the Olympic venue sites, Pinerolo was upset they got stuck with curling.

"Now I think they think it's OK,'' said Schmidt.