How Italian curling became in vogue

  • Team Italy compete in the 361º World Men's Curling Championship Richard Grey

It took Joel Retornaz 12 years to return to the Olympics after representing Italy in 2006, but when he did, his country fell in love.

The press called them the bearded team — a group of four regular Italians, all with carefully manicured facial hair, who were also Olympic curlers. Boosted by a viral video, a late-night television appearance and strong initial results in PyeongChang, Team Italy cast the sport into the spotlight, driving curling interest in a country better known for beaches and vineyards.

“I think it’s a different kind of interest from 2006 when people didn’t really know what curling was,” said Retornaz. “They thought it was some kind of a card game.”

Back in 2006, Italians identified with curling because it was similar to bocce ball — an Italian pastime popular across generations. This time they remembered the 34-year-old entrepreneur from Cembra who introduced them to the sport when their country hosted the Olympic Winter Games in Turin. Retornaz became the new reference.

“The traditional media began to try to understand who our players are and what they do during their days, their daily routine, how many hours they train,” said Davide Marostica, who handles the communications for Team Italy.

It helped that Team Italy were so genuinely happy. When they qualified for the Olympics, a video of them celebrating on the ice went viral in Italy.

This landed them an appearance on the country’s popular late-night television show E Poi C'è Cattelan, furthering their popularity.

“Now we need great results to continue to not be forgotten until the next event,” said Marostica. “The next step,” he said, “is trying to convince the people in Italy that we have not just a team of normal players that have the chance to compete in the Olympics every four years, but also that we have a strong team.”

That’s part of the reason why it still haunts Retornaz that Italy missed the play-offs in PyeongChang.

“The public expected more from us this time,” said Retornaz. “Qualifying for the Olympics is very different from winning a medal at the Olympics,” he said. “There’s a huge gap still to compensate.”

No matter the results, the first step in the growth of Italian curling is already achieved — they’re now represented at the biggest curling events in the world, like the 361º World Men’s Curling Championship 2018, in Las Vegas, United States.

“When you can’t participate in the great events,” said Marostica, “it’s not easy to let people see the matches or increase the popularity.”

The Italians hope to build on the Olympic excitement.

“I don’t think it’s only curling,” said Retornaz, “but all kinds of sports gain visibility during the Olympics but tend to go back to the old trend of not having a lot of people doing them after.”

Yet curling is unique among sporting federations — at least this year. The Redtorch ‘Sport on Social’ report, which annually analyses the social media growth of 50 IOC-recognised International Sport Federations, ranked the World Curling Federation the fastest growing sport on social media. The World Curling Federation moved up ten total spots from March 2017 to March 2018 and received the third highest Facebook engagement rate overall.

The sport is growing online, now Italy just needs to see it grow on the ground.

“In Italy, we probably need more structures in order to develop our sport. They say there are not enough athletes so that’s why they don’t make structures. But, if you don’t have structures you cannot attract people to play curling. It’s a loop,” Retornaz said.

In the meantime, Retornaz will continue to do his part to grow the sport by searching for success on the ice.

“For our movement,” said Marostica, “it’s important to try to remain at all the best events in the world and do something important.”

Retornaz says he’s up for that challenge. “As long as I will enjoy playing and I will feel fit enough and good enough to compete at this level I will go on with that,” he said.

To engage with the World Curling Federation on social media in the build to the 361º World Men's Curling Championship 2018 follow it on Twitter, Instagram (@worldcurling) and Facebook (/WorldCurlingFederation) and use the hashtags when posting: #WMCC2018 #curling

Written by Jolene Latimer