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Dennis: With all-stars, US Olympic curling team can win gold

“The neighborhood curling team,” The New York Times headlined its story in 2010, which profiled the U.S. men’s Olympic curling team for that year.

“All five members of the team — four on the ice and one as an alternate — are from Minnesota.” Moreover, three of the five had been friends since boyhood; and now, there they were, a self-formed team of real-life neighbors, on their way to the Olympics.

It was an echo of the original Olympic spirit of amateurism.

And if the team had won, it could have been curling’s “Miracle on Ice,” as impressive as the famed U.S. Olympic hockey team’s triumph over the state-supported Soviets in 1980. But the U.S. curling team didn’t win. They didn’t even place.

Instead, they came in last. So did the U.S. women’s curling team that year.

And so did both the U.S. men’s and women’s curling teams at the Sochi Olympics this year.

A Miracle on Ice would be great, but not when every other encounter winds up as a Crushing Defeat on Ice. The U.S. Olympic Committee is right to insist on a change, even if that change comes at the expense of curling’s beloved tradition of community or self-formed teams.

“After another last-place performance by American curlers at the Sochi Olympics, the U.S. Olympic Committee put USA Curling on notice,” the Star Tribune recently reported.

Among the USOC’s suggested changes: Creating “a pool of elite curlers who would receive most of the $680,000 it (the USOC) spends to fund athletes each year.

“The U.S. always has been represented at the Olympics and world championships by self-formed teams that earned their berths. Several of the world’s top curling countries now choose a group of athletes to fund and train full-time, then assemble teams from that pool to go to major competitions.”

It doesn’t matter that the system in other countries is the way of the world. What matters is that it’s the way to victory; and at the Olympics, as long experience over the decades has proven, victories count.

They certainly count more than many would have guessed back in 1960, when officials at the Olympics claimed amateurism was the secret to the games’ success. In fact, “if we water down the rules now, the games will be destroyed within eight years,” one executive claimed.

But a funny thing happened after the Olympics started letting professional athletes compete in 1988: The games’ popularity went up, not down.

That’s why the current formula is not the Miracle on Ice team. Instead, it’s the Dream Team, the NBA all-stars who crushed the competition on their way to winning Olympic gold in 1992, and who launched a marketing bonanza that has set records ever since.

So, while sending all-stars to the Olympics may hurt curling’s tradition of self-formed teams, the pain is likely to be short-lived. That’s because curling’s popularity is sure to grow once the U.S. teams start winning Olympic gold.

To its credit, USA Curling voted on Saturday to change its bylaws and accept the USOC’s plan. Clearly, USA Curling sees that while its traditional approach was great for the self-formed teams, the organization’s responsibilities are bigger when it comes to selecting Olympic teams.

Those responsibilities extend to all Americans. And with the Olympics, Americans clearly are most interested in fielding teams that win.

Kudos to curling’s governing body for recognizing that interest — and for taking the steps needed to fulfill it.

Dennis is the opinion editor of The Grand Forks Herald. Email him at