Wheelchair curling sets Pyeongchang pulses racing
Pyeongchang, Mar 17 (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 in Pyeongchang where 12 mixed teams, consisting of male and female athletes with 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 were sold for the wheelchair curling at the Games, while Mr. T -- who tweeted about his love of the sport during the 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."
- 'Wheelchairs curling, more cooler!' -
The Gangneung Curling Centre was packed out Saturday for the final two matches of the Paralympics, with spectators waving flags and banners, and roaring with excitement every time a stone slid into the target.
China defeated Norway 6-5 in a nail-biting final to win gold while Canada beat South Korea 5-3 in the bronze medal game, leaving the hosts in fourth place.
The crowd was particularly boisterous during South Korea's match, cheering loudly every time their side was doing well, and performing Mexican waves.
The South Koreans' good performance has 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 coach Beak Jong-chul.
As well as a lot of spectators, wheelchair curling attracts by far the most ageing athletes of any sport at the Paralympics, with a good number of competitors over 50.
The oldest athlete in Pyeongchang competed in wheelchair curling -- Germany's Harry Pavel, aged 67.
And Canada's team included a mother of four and grandmother of 10 -- Marie Wright, 57.
Curling-mad Mr. T, who made his name playing big-hearted toughman B.A. Baracus in 1980s TV hit "The A-Team", has seemed even more enamoured of wheelchair curing than of the able-bodied 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