Sports

Being John Shuster: The Curling Skip Takes It On The Chin

John Shuster, U.S. curling skip, competes on February 20, 2010.

Curling skip John Shuster has had a rough first week at the Winter Olympics. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

John Shuster started curling in 1997. In 2003, his team finished first at the U.S. national championships and then eighth at the world championships.

Think about where you were six years ago and what you were doing. Imagine that you had taken up a sport that year. Imagine that you were now on a team playing at the world championships. Oh, and three years from now, you will be an Olympic bronze medalist.

Of course, none of this made John Shuster famous. Not in the United States, where people pay attention to curling once every four years, and half of those people are watching it ironically, or so they claim. Nobody paid much attention to John Shuster when he won a bronze medal in 2006, or four national championships. None of that would have ever made him a Twitter meme, had such a thing been as popular at the time as it is now.

But then he missed three big shots in three of Team USA's matches at the Olympics last week, and now he's Twitter's favorite symbol of failure. Search on his name, and it won't take you too long to see it. Three missed shots, and that's it for you. Elsewhere in the punishing world of social media, there are not one but two "John Shuster sucks" groups on Facebook, and another particularly ambitious one suggesting that he be deported. "Our captain is an overweight buffoon with the nerve of a 5-year-old girl," says the deportation advocate. Ask yourself: Had he made those shots, would there be three "John Shuster is awesome" groups on Facebook, started by those same people?

After the team lost its first four matches, the coaching staff benched Shuster — who's the skip (less endearing sports would just say "captain"), meaning that he literally calls the shots in addition to making his own. With Shuster on the bench and Jason Smith taking over his leadership role, the U.S. beat France — but then Shuster went back in on Saturday, and the team won that match against Sweden, too. Smith (who has been nominated for hero, cast as Shuster's opposite) told a reporter after the Sweden victory that he'd been awfully glad to be able to go back to just throwing rocks, rather than being tasked with helping direct everybody's shots. It's kind of a hard job, it turns out, and Shuster had been the one doing it for all those good shots everybody else was making that allegedly proved how bad he was by comparison.

The curling-industrial complex and its limitations, after the jump.

One of the great things about watching curling on TV — and don't get me started on the number of hours of curling I have been watching on TV — is that the players are miked up, so you can get a pretty decent idea of how they talk to each other. When he screws up, Shuster just tells his guys he's sorry. He's not an excuse guy, or a brooding guy, or a chair-throwing guy, or a complaining guy. He'll tell you things are moving on the ice farther or faster than he'd expect, but that's so you know for your next shot.

And when they benched him for Friday's match, he not only took it without a word of public griping, but he sat on the sidelines and helped coach. Once or twice, the actual coach — the one who had benched him — even carried messages from him to the team about what shot he thought they should try. And when they put him back in the lineup on Saturday, he came right back and made some crucial shots during the match with Sweden — not that this stopped his detractors from claiming every time one of his shots wasn't perfect that he ... what was it? Oh, right. "Sucks."

Just like Lindsey Jacobellis demonstrates the hazards of bringing too much history to the Olympics, maybe Shuster demonstrates the hazards of bringing too little. Many of those of us who have watched curling during this Olympics couldn't have picked John Shuster out of a lineup two weeks ago (when he was a four-time national champion), but we certainly can now. And where the Jacobellis narrative was tainted with all her old baggage, the Shuster narrative is tainted by the need to create any narrative at all based on whatever relatively skimpy information is at hand. There's got to be a story, right? Or else why do you care what happens? And the easiest story of all, it turns out, is "Chapter One: That guy sucks. The End."

Some baseball player or another has a terrible World Series almost every year, but it doesn't lead to a mass delusion that he's actually a terrible baseball player who managed to get to the World Series by accident. Shuster, on the other hand, somehow became the guy who is actually completely terrible at his sport, and we are just the momentary fans to expose him, since we do have, after all, several days' experience as spectators.

It's one thing if you're an actor, or a singer, or for that matter a real estate tycoon, and you appear to be a well-marketed but skills-challenged commodity. But I don't think anyone can argue that John Shuster is the product of ridiculous Shusterian hype, the curling-industrial complex run amok, all flash and no skills. The guy is where he is as a result of his history of being on teams that beat other teams in objectively measurable competitions. He's probably not actually terrible at it, any more than Alex Rodriguez is terrible at baseball because he's had some significant postseason issues or Brett Favre is a bad quarterback because he throws crucial interceptions — and those are things that emerged over a period of years, not days.

There's nothing wrong with a good "heck with that guy" story, but a guy who still tends bar and works on the grounds crew at a golf course in the off-season seems like an awfully weird target. Nobody starts curling in the United States to get rich or endorse a signature line of Teflon shoes. He didn't get here from Curling Idol or a viral video on YouTube. He got where he is in exactly the way we always say people in the Olympics are supposed to: by working hard as a legitimate amateur athlete.

It doesn't look at this point like there is a medal in Team USA's future, and that's a shame for the team. But what would really be a shame would be Shuster being asked to wear all of this forever, just because nobody was paying attention until now.

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