Asia

Winter Olympics 2018: South Korea's accidental curling superstars

Skip Kim Eun-jung of South Korea delivers a stone. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Skip Kim Eun-jung of South Korea and her team have wowed the public

South Korean hearts have been captured at the Winter Olympics in a way no-one expected. The understated, nerdy but cool Korean women's curlers are slaying giants and could win a medal, reports the BBC's Stephen McDonell in Pyeongchang.

Sure, there are the speed skaters, the two-man bobsleigh, the joint North-South women's hockey team and a host of other local athletes competing their socks off at Pyeongchang - but none of them has been able to match the national enthusiasm for "the Garlic Girls".

In a country which only a few weeks ago had barely heard of curling, this team continues to score win after upset win. Now they're in the semi-finals, two victories away from a gold medal.

The Garlic Girls are so named because of the small garlic-producing region they come from. Then there are the names they gave each other after sitting down for breakfast one day: Steak, Yogurt, Pancake, Sunny and Chocho.

The five-woman team, led by skipper Kim Eun-jung (all are surnamed Kim), includes two sisters and they are all schoolmates.

They appear so modest, but these incredible, determined underdogs have won comfortably against established curling nations such as Canada, Great Britain, the US and Sweden. Team Korea started as eighth seeds but have reached the semi-finals where they will face Japan. Sweden or Great Britain await should they reach the final.

Image copyright Reuters

They seem to be becoming more confident by the day.

Team vice-captain Kim Kyeong-ae said: "What we do is focus on one shot at a time, not on the strength of those we're playing. One shot at a time: we don't care about anything else."

Another player, Kim Seon-yeong, spoke to reporters about their remarkable run. "Look, we still have more games to go," she said. "We'll only know how well we've done at the end but we are definitely trying to finish on top."

Team Kim - underground cool

The women must also know that they've become sub-culture icons.

There are manga-style cartoon images of Team Kim wearing their "don't-mess-with-us" facial expressions.

Then there are all the hilarious depictions of how cool, calm and collected they are.

Captain Kim is shown in a series of identical steely-eyed photos under headings like delighted, sad, stressed, ashamed, enraged, etc.

Other memes that have gone viral include a photoshopped image showing the girls using a vacuum cleaner (flat robot vacuum cleaners that resemble a curling stone are the latest home appliance in South Korea).

And many people have been inspired to emulate the hoovering curlers at home.

Perhaps the most widespread joke that's doing the rounds is that all the spectators pretty much hear from Captain Kim during competition is her calling out the name of Kim Yeong-mi, her teammate at the other end.

But depending how she says it, the gag goes, you can tell what her instructions are. So the post reads:

How Koreans understand curling.

"Yeong-mi!" - Start sweeping!

"Yeong-mi!!" - Stop sweeping! Wait.

"Yeong-mi!!! - Sweep fast!

"Yeong-mi! Yeong-mi! Yeong-mi" - Doooooooooon't sweep!

Image copyright Reuters

'I love it - it's like chess'

This is all a dream result for a sport hoping to broaden its global appeal.

The men's downhill might be on, or the thrills and athleticism of aerial snowboard, but South Koreans in their millions are sitting in front of televisions watching curling.

People racing to and from train platforms at Seoul station can barely control their enthusiasm.

"It's my favourite sport at the Olympics," says 20-year-old student Ji Yu-min. "I watch it with my family and we all cheer as the stones fly."

Image copyright Reuters

"It is pretty strange to watch and looks a bit like cleaners working," laughs 44-year-old Cha Soon-ja who owns a women's fashion outlet, adding that she's become totally addicted to it. "I even watched a match this morning."

Having this on during the Lunar New Year holiday period has meant that whole families have taught each other rules of curling while they gather for long lunches at home.

Student Jung Hyun-jung, 22, says that having watched the Games with his relatives, he would like to play.

"Curling is an unfamiliar sport for Koreans," he says, adding "but now I really love it. It's like chess."

Cha Gi-won, a 54-year-old biological scientist, thinks it's no accident that these women have become so good so quickly.

"Curling requires similar focus to sports like snooker and golf," Cha says, "and Koreans are pretty good at those."

The Garlic Girls may be overnight superstars here, but this campaign has been some 10 years in the making.

In 2006 their hometown Uiseong built a curling centre with local government funding when these young women were still in high school and they started playing.

Image copyright AFP

More recently Canadian coach Peter Gallant has been brought onboard to help lift them to another level.

He told the girls not to be intimidated by the top teams: "Technically they were very good, they just lacked the strategy," he told BBC Sport.

"I'm not surprised by their form. If you'd have said we'd be 7-1 at the start of the week I'd have said 'I'd love that to be the score'. Every game is so tough, you expect to have a few down games. We haven't had that.

"Have the crowd helped? There's two ways of looking at it. Coming in to this I told them to embrace it. Don't be nervous of the crowd, just be thankful they're cheering you on.

"The crowd are loving it."

Of course, the problem with doing so well is that now an entire country is daring to dream that they could end up as Olympic champions and this must be bringing enormous pressure on them.

If that is the case it certainly doesn't show. This lot have nerves of steel.

And what a thing it would be if they actually could pull this off - the stuff that Olympic legends are made of.

Additional reporting by BBC Sport's Caroline Chapman and BBC Korean's Minji Lee.

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