In January 1991, when she was 73 years old but looked about 50, Sophie Olafson Wallace was preparing ham-and-cheese sandwiches at the snack bar of the Granite Curling Club in Seattle when she overheard two men groaning about the ancient ice sport's absence from the Olympic Winter Games. "We've got to get 25 countries," Wallace recalls one of the men asserting. "Then it'll be an Olympic sport."
Inspired, Wallace set aside her culinary ministrations and approached the men, one of whom was the president of the World Curling Federation (WCF), G�nther Hummelt. Although curling was as beloved by Scots as oatcakes and was perennially one of the top attractions on Canadian television, it had never been very popular outside its traditional heartlands. Players in only 23 countries had taken up the sport.
The old Soviet bloc had ignored curling. The nearest U.S. rink to the Granite Club was 1,700 miles to the east, in Chicago. And official Olympic inclusion—the sacred quest of every sport from Frisbee to fly casting—seemed even more remote, although curling had been "demonstrated" time and again, dating back to the first Winter Games, in Chamonix in 1924. But a light had gone on in Wallace's head, and a smile crept across her unlined face.
"I walked over," she recalls, "and I said, 'Excuse me, gentlemen, but have you ever tried to get Iceland? They have the right name for the game.' "
Wallace had, in curling parlance, drawn shot rock to the button. The men digested her proposition. "Half an hour later," she says, "they came over and said, 'How'd you like to be our ambassador to Iceland?" I said, 'Pay our way? O.K!' "
Seven years later Wallace, who now looks to be about 49, recalls this Norse saga on the eve of curling's historic inauguration as a full-fledged gold medal Olympic event, in February in Japan. She and her husband, Thomas, have made half a dozen trips to Iceland, all but the first at their own expense. They have elucidated the intricacies of curling to unschooled skips and sweepers and have explained to querulous customs officers why two senior citizens would include among their luggage a pair of 42-pound stones.
Along the way, the ambassadors have prodded Iceland into membership in the WCF, despite the fact that the country has not a single sheet of useful natural ice. As Wallace admits in one of her Granite Curling Club monthly newsletters, "Progress has been very slow because of a lack of leaders, illness, volcanic eruptions and an economic slump."
Still, the ambassadors press on. About 15 eager novices practice determinedly on an outdoor hockey rink in the Icelandic city of Akureyri, according to Wallace, "on nights when it isn't raining and the wind's not blowing too severely" (which isn't often). A couple of Icelanders have been flown to Canada for intensive instruction; a curling arena is in the planning stage in Akureyri; and Reykjav�k, the nation's capital, is considering converting an abandoned fish-processing plant into a facility for ice hockey, figure skating and curling.
What's more, thanks to Appleseeds like the Wallaces, the WCF has 31 member nations, including such winter-sports hotbeds as Mexico. Australia. South Korea and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This worldwide clamor—and Hummelt's impassioned wooing of the Olympic politburo and the Nagano organizing committee—has cleared the ice for the sport to slide smoothly, proudly, finally, into the Olympic house.
Nine countries will compete in Japan in men's and women's curling. The U.S., which has won the men's world championship four times since 1965 but never the women's title, has qualified in both divisions. The U.S. rinks (i.e., teams) were determined at a tournament in Duluth, Minn., in early December.