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Martin elevated to Canadian sporting royalty after curling gold

Canada's skip, Kevin Martin, holds up his gold medal. (Ric Ernst/Canwest News Service/MCT)
Canada's skip, Kevin Martin, holds up his gold medal. (Ric Ernst/Canwest News Service/MCT)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — As the Canadian men's curling team neared victory in the gold medal match against Norway on Saturday, the crowd in the Vancouver Olympic Centre stood and began singing "O, Canada."

When Canadian skip Kevin Martin threw the last stone, ensuring a 6-3 victory and the gold, the Canadian players leaped into each other's arms, women in the stands wept, and the Prime Minister cheered.

Curling is a strange sport, more housekeeping on ice than a true, death-defying, high-speed winter game, and yet it was curling that provided perhaps the quintessential Canadian moment near the end of the Vancouver Olympics.

With the curling victory, Canada reached 13 gold medals, ensuring its lead in that category and justifying its country's Olympic slogan of "Own the Podium," accomplishing all of that with a sport that is, like Canada, cold, quirky, polite and patriotic.

The curlers won Canada's third gold of the day in front of their PM, actor Donald Sutherland and men's hockey coach Mike Babcock.

"We hoped for just this finish," said Canada curling coach Jules Owchar. "It's probably the best 48 hours in Canadian Winter Olympics history.

"I think for the whole country, but especially in Central and Eastern Canada where the sport is immensely popular, people will be in the streets celebrating this. It's a great celebration for the team and the country, but what is really special is that tomorrow morning boys and girls are going to be getting up and wanting to curl, and wanting to be him."

"Him" is Martin, sometimes referred to as the Michael Jordan of his sport.

This makes sense, because while Martin doesn't make tens of millions of dollars in endorsements, isn't one of the great sporting celebrities in the world, doesn't wag his tongue, probably couldn't jump over a speed bump without tripping, didn't quit his sport to try baseball, and had won zero gold medals in his first 42 years on earth, he is bald.

He's famous enough in Canada that a reporter asked him if he would become a sex symbol, which made Martin laugh. He earned a silver medal in 2002 and failed to qualify for the 2006 Olympics, and the Canadian media had played up the redemption angle all week.

Who knew any curler could need redemption?

"I said to the guys as we were walking to the podium, 'It's like walking through a dream,' " Martin said. "I've never experienced anything like this."

Curling isn't often contested in venues as big as the 7,600-seat Vancouver Olympic Centre, so this event showcased the sport in ways even the vanquished appreciated. "It was an amazing crowd," Norway skip Thomas Ulsrud said. "I really enjoyed it."

It's strange to see such a passive sport inspire such passion. This was like a chess match with cheerleaders.

"We don't often compete in places of this size, or in front of crowds like this," Owchar said. "It was very sporting, very spirited, very intimate."

Before the match, a couple of strangely dressed men held a sign that read: "Kevin Martin & His Merry Men," referring to Martin's three teammates.

Martin, the son of an ice-maker (of course), owns a business based in Edmonton called "Kevin's Curling Supplies," which is apparently not a euphemism for a liquor store.

He has turned what many American view as a strange hobby into a life. Saturday, he capped a day of Canadian triumph with a uniquely Canadian triumph.

"It makes a big difference to have the home crowd on your side," Martin said. "You could tell that by the way our country fared in gold medals.

"It's obvious that 'Own the Podium' worked. It's amazing how well our country has done, and I'll never forget being part of it."

Then Martin added a Canadian coda to his Olympics: "That was great, eh?"

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