By Mitch Phillips
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – South Korea’s dream run to the women’s final, a spectacularly-achieved first gold for the United States and a third triumph in four Games for Sweden’s women were the headline stories of the 18-day curling competition at the Winter Olympics.
For the sport’s aficionados, though, the bigger story was the stunning fall from grace of Canada, the sport’s ultimate super power, who failed for the first time to medal in the men’s or women’s events having begun the Games by winning the inaugural team competition.
For a country that boasts more curlers than the rest of the world combined, and coming alongside similar setbacks in ice hockey, the inquests have already started.
Of the five Olympics before Pyeongchang, Canada’s reigning world champion men had won gold in the last three and lost in the other two finals, but this time they were off the podium after losing to Switzerland in the bronze-medal match.
Their women, also world and defending champions and who had medaled in every previous Olympics, fared even worse, failing to get beyond the preliminary stage.
Canada did at least win the team event and their coaches were heavily involved in the improvement and success of other teams, with new faces among the medals and stiffer competition throughout.
That uplift is a development welcomed by Canadian vice-skip Mac Kennedy.
“They’re damn good. They’ve learned how to win and it’s tough to keep up,” he said.
“As a Canadian that wants to win everything, it sucks. But I’m a fan of the sport, it’s wonderful, so if other countries are getting to finals and winning, then it’s awesome.”
As a lover of the sport, and its values, Kennedy would certainly have enjoyed what panned out once he was on his way home.
American skip John Shuster had borne the brunt of the criticism for his team’s failures in 2010 and 2014 and was dropped from the team for a while, which made his moment in the spotlight all the sweeter.
Locked at 5-5 against a Swedish team also seeking a first gold, Shuster played the shot of his life to score a rare five-pointer — and what a time to do it in the eighth end of the Olympic final — to spur the U.S. to an eventual 10-7 triumph.
The Americans were so happy they did not even mind when they were mistakenly awarded the women’s medals by mistake.
On the women’s side South Korea took “Team Kim”, with their members sharing the same surname, to their hearts as they steamrollered through qualifying, winning eight of nine games.
Half the country reportedly tuned in to watch the semi-final against Japan as Kim Eun-jung, worshipped for her inscrutable body language, threaded a superb extra-end last stone to clinch victory for the “Garlic Girls”, so named for the growing region they all hail from.
The final proved a step too far as the experienced Swedes made it three golds and a silver from the last three Games with a dominant 8-3 win — a great performance alongside their men’s best-ever runners-up spot.
Korea’s silver in their second Olympic appearance and Japan’s bronze in the women’s event marked the first time two Asian teams had medaled — China’s women’s bronze in 2010 was the only previous Asian medal — so Canada’s return to the top and Sweden’s continued success, with the next Games in Beijing, are by no means assured.
(Additional reporting by Steve Keating, editing by Clare Fallon)