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What I Watched Last Night: Universal Sports And The Digital Conversion

For anyone either too poor or too Fuck-The-Man because there's something fundamentally wrong with Comcast charging the gross domestic product of Peru for basic cable, an advantage to the analog TV conversion is the dozen or so additional digital channels you get absolutely free. This is a welcome development for anyone with a lot of useless UHF channels because you don't speak Spanish or Korean.

Among the digital spawn is NBC's Universal Sports on channel 5.3, which is pretty much the free-TV equivalent of ESPN2. This is fine by me, because ESPN's mother channel doesn't air neat stuff like World's Strongest Man competitions from Iceland. This week, Universal Sports was busy covering a whole slew of World Cup events like bobsledding, luge, and skiing from Bulgaria and Slovenia. Defend Summer Olympic events like javelin throwing and pole vaulting all you want, but they don't hold a candle to a ski jumper floating breathtakingly-perfect through the air only to land with the style and grace of someone getting pushed off the end of a pier during a Red Bull Flugtag.

A big chunk of Universal Sport's Saturday coverage was devoted to curling, an activity that was able to roll finesse, cutthroat strategy, turn-on-a-dime heartbreak, and a whole lot of shouting by people with Minnesota accents into an Olympic sport. Much like televised bowling or golf, how fascinated you can become with a slow-moving sport where a single match can last up to two-and-a-half hours is often proportional to how bored or stoned you might be.

If you're unfamiliar with curling, imagine playing bocce ball or shuffleboard while freezing your ass off in some cavernous indoor ice arena. Unlike other sports, curling can be enjoyed by anyone of any age without having to worry much about blowing out a knee or being in great physical shape. Like bocce, curling is a social sport imported by foreigners who weren't satisfied enough with a simple game of Jarts. This has been a godsend to the people of Minnesota and upper Wisconsin, where social activity during the dead of winter is limited to drinking and whatever goes on in ice fishing shacks. Best of all, curling - just like ice fishing or darts or snowmobiling - has unlimited potential to become more interesting when you're drunk, provided you don't do something stupid like fall through the ice of a frozen lake and drown.

Saturday's live coverage of the women's and men's 2010 Winter Olympic Team trials originated from the Broomfield Event Center, a 10,000-seat ice arena near Denver whose pebbled curling lanes were emblazoned with the slogan "amazing awaits." This is something of an overstatement because, really, curling isn't all that amazing. Impressive maybe, but not amazing. Amazing is what you get when some guy on skis goes cartwheeling down a slope like a rag doll at 70 miles an hour without ending up dead.

Still, I imagine Saturday's do-or-die matches between Team Lank vs. Team McCormick (women) and Team Schuster vs. Team George (men) were pretty amazing for the 15,000 fans and family who spent all week clanking cowbells and blowing big plastic bugles that sound like a moose calling for someone to get its hoof unstuck from a snow fence. Universal Sport's man down on the ice was Bill Morehouse, a pleasant-enough fellow who spent a lot of time demonstrating that ice-arena lighting flatters absolutely nobody.

Much like bocce, the object of curling is to get your stone closest to the center of a target 93 feet away, either by finessing your way to it using spin (making the stone "curl") or by bashing your opponent's stones out of the way. Two members of the team "sweep" the ice in front of the moving stone by scrubbing away like madmen with brooms which look more like big lint brushes or something you'd use to clean your car windshield. Why it hasn't occurred to anyone to replace ice skates with curling shoes - they let you glide forward and backward but grip tight when you walk - is beyond me. The noticeable difference between Saturday's curlers was their on-ice conduct, which revolves around screaming things like "Yep yep yep!!" and "Harrrrd!!" and "Hurry!!" at the sweepers at the top of their lungs. While curler John Shuster was content to sound like the lead singer for Gwar every now and then, the women were constantly drowning out the color commentary as if they were being possessed by whatever demon is in charge of orgasmic rapture.

The commercial breaks included a spot for the Slap Chop - a bitchin' little dicer-grater perfect for working out anger-management issues - starring Vince the ShamWow! guy. Vince is without equal the greatest commercial huckster ever to deliver the line "You're gonna love my nuts."

I had other things to do, so I didn't see the dramatic end to the men's contest, but I did catch one of the women in Team McCormick's group-hug victory celebration get caught up in the moment and yell, "Motherfuckerrrrrrrrs!" Granted, it wasn't the unbridled Brandi Chastain, but it was a neat-enough moment of spontaneous combustion you'd never hear on ABC's Wide World of Sports, proving once again that digital is better than analog.

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See what else we've been watching. Submissions welcome.



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Posted on March 2, 2009


MUSIC - The Week In Chicago Rock.
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BOOKS - Chicago For Dummies.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - The Sears Motor Buggy.


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