Wheelchair curling sets Pyeongchang pulses racing


Pyeongchang (South Korea) (AFP)

It's probably the slowest sport at the Winter Paralympics, but curling has proved an unlikely hit, with spectators flocking to watch wheelchair-bound athletes skillfully slide stones over a sheet of ice.

The popularity of the niche sport has exploded in South Korea since February's Olympics when their women's side, nicknamed the "Garlic Girls", had a fairytale run and won a silver medal.

Curling's new-found fame has spilled over to this month's Paralympics where 12 teams, consisting of both male and female athletes who have leg impairments, have competed.

The rules are similar to able-bodied curling. Athletes slide stones over the ice, and whoever gets them closest to the centre of a target at the end of each round can pick up points.

There is one key difference in the Paralympic version however -- there is no sweeping, where athletes use a broom to vigorously rub the ice in front of a sliding stone to better direct it.

More than 54,000 tickets have been sold for the wheelchair curling, while curling-mad Mr. T -- who tweeted about his love of the sport during last month's Olympics -- has swung back into action, urging his followers to watch it at the Paralympics.

Only para-ice hockey, a fast and furious sport that sees athletes competing in double-bladed sledges, has been more popular at the Pyeongchang Games.

"It's a very entertaining game," Canadian wheelchair curler Ina Forrest, who lost the use of her legs aged 21 after a traffic accident, told AFP.

"I think there's been a huge increase in the calibre of wheelchair curling."

The Gangneung Curling Centre was packed out Saturday for a match between South Korea and Canada, with spectators waving banners and flags, and roaring with excitement whenever a stone slid close to the centre of the target.

Canada pipped South Korea 5-3 to win the bronze medal, with the Koreans ending the Games in fourth place.

The South Koreans' good performance has also helped to bolster crowd sizes, with more home fans coming to watch.

"The team got good results, making people even more interested in the game," said team coach Beak Jong-chul.

The gold medal showdown between China and Norway takes place later Saturday.

Mr. T, who made his name playing big-hearted toughman B.A. Baracus in 1980s TV hit "The A-Team", tweeted about his love of curling throughout the Olympics -- and seems even more enamoured of the Paralympic version.

"I said it before and I'll say it again.. curling is cool fool! But wheelchairs curling, more cooler!" tweeted the star, known for his gold chains and mohican haircut.