How a gold medal could help revitalize Italy's love for curling

Stefania Constantini, and Amos Mosaner earned Italy gold in mixed doubles. Will that win help grow the sport in their country? AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

"We have two periods: Before gold medal. After gold medal."

Aldo Peinetti, a sports editor at the Italian newspaper Eco del Chisone, is referring to the historic gold medal won by Stefania Constantini and Amos Mosaner in mixed doubles curling at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The gold medal was Italy's first in the sport, and it highlighted a passion for curling, which has seen an increase in popularity since the 2006 Games in Torino.

Italy's view on curling has changed through the years, and Peinetti traces it to the small town of Pinerolo.

Pinerolo is a sort of capital of a region-inside-a-region that also includes valleys and ski venues, like Sestriere or Torre Pellice. Close to France, the city has important cultural exchanges with French communities in history (the famous Iron Mask was jailed in Pinerolo for some years), and a cultural heritage due to its past. Its cozy, historical town center is full of shops and pubs. It is a culturally rich city with plenty of features -- and curling is one of them.

Pinerolo is close to Torino (40 kilometers, or 25 miles), at the foot of Piedmont's Alps. Constantini and Mosaner's gold medal has given a renewed outlook to Italy's curling. It all started for Pinerolo -- for the sport in Italy -- in 2006. The Winter Olympics in Torino changed everything. The Games brought new facilities. While some of those structures were abandoned after the Games -- with a lot of controversies -- Pinerolo still believed in the new ice rink and the sport of curling.

Still, even after Constantini and Mosaner claimed gold, the sport remains a hard sell for young athletes. They don't just say, to friends and family, "I'm going to play curling." Soccer is still the most popular sport in Italy, with popularity also increasing in volleyball, basketball and cycling. But in Pinerolo, people believe curling could continue to surge.

Simone Gonin, one of Italy's top curlers, is representing Pinerolo in these Games. His father, Eros, was instrumental in the sport's rise in popularity.

"What you see is a positive heritage of Torino 2006 Winter Olympics," Eros Gonin said.

Pinerolo is the youngest of the three big venues for curling in Italy. The second great venue is Cembra (Trento's autonomous province) and the third one is Cortina d'Ampezzo (Veneto). Some small venues exist in other cities in Northern Italy. Cortina, along with Milan, will host the 2026 Winter Olympics. But Pinerolo, the small city close to Torino, is still the most important center for curling training. Italy counts 333 members on curling teams -- 150 of them are in Pinerolo. Eros Gonin highlights that this sport is another reason "to be proud of Pinerolo."

"In the past? People used to laugh about curling," Gonin said.

But now, millions of people tune in to the Olympics just for curling matches, and Pinerolo has seen an increase in media attention since curling put the town on the map.

"I'm doing only interviews in these days," said Gonin, who considers the gold medal a representation of his group's hard work.

"The real success is actually to have created an attention on this sport. Beijing Olympics are a way to say 'we exist.'"

So, the question is: Why Pinerolo? It starts with Gonin, who is now 65. He is a curling coach and a former member of the Federazione Italiana Sport del Ghiaccio -- the Italian Federation of Ice Sports. He is the one who imagined Pinerolo as the right venue for curling. He managed the rink in Pinerolo and now he coaches its team.

But to understand how the sport rose in popularity across Italy, and especially in Pinerolo, it all goes back to those 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. In order to organize those Olympic Games, Torino's Olympic committee had to start in 2002 by placing every discipline at venues in the territory. Roy Sinclair, former president of World Curling Federation, was invited to scout locations. He was taken to the Palatazzoli building in Torino, but was unimpressed. It was then that Gonin appealed to Pinerolo's mayor, Alberto Barbero.

Gonin is smiling when he tells this "strategy story." The next day, Sinclair went to Pinerolo early in the morning, where he was met with a big breakfast served by the local culinary institute near the the sports center. It was sunny that day, and he fell in love with Pinerolo.

"I come from athletics and I decided to move myself to the curling world," he said. "We created an interesting movement in Pinerolo, which involved the schools."

Local boys and girls, in a green and cozy location with small-town appeal that was well-connected to Torino -- these were the ingredients of Pinerolo's curling recipe.

And it worked. Sinclair was sold.

Within four years, Pinerolo became a big center for training, overtaking Cortina D'Ampezzo and Cembra, with about 2,000 students involved every year to promote curling. Professional curlers are also trainers for young athletes. This is how the sport grows.

Angela Romei is a product of this. At 24, from Pinerolo, she's part of the Italian national team and plays for Mole2020, a Torino curling team. She's also a member of Fiamme Oro, the Italian police's sports team. In Italy, the police and army have sports teams that hire the most talented athletes. The fact that Fiamme Oro registers curling athletes (Romei is not the only one) confirms the increase of this discipline in Italy. Now, Romei is also working as a television commentator for curling matches in the Olympics

"The other countries used to see our curling teams like underdogs", she said.

The hope is the gold medal by Constantini and Mosaner brings more investment in curling. Today, if you live in the South of Italy and you'd like to play curling you must move.

"We are a country which is working to stand up and be counted," Romei said. "But we can't increase our athletes without a project."

People who love curling need venues, and Milan is working to create more ice rinks dedicated to curling -- for the 2026 Olympics, of course. Close to the city, in a village called Bresso, an entrepreneur, Mario Corvo, is building a sports center with three ice tracks for curling. A second sports center is going to be built close to Milan in the next few years.

"In 2006, Italy had 800 registered members in curling teams," Gonin said. "And what happened after? The attention has decreased and no new venues were built."

Now, though, the attention is stronger than 2006 -- thanks to the gold medal. Also, more business people are investing in buildings. Next month in Torino, two venues are going to change their look and host curling matches. One of them is the Palatazzoli, which is already used for hockey.

In 2013, a famous Italian actor and director, Claudio Amendola, directed the movie "La mossa del pinguino" -- the penguin's move -- about a curling team. An important part of the film was shot in Pinerolo. Gonin and his staff went to Rome to train the cast. A few days ago, Rai television re-aired this funny and adorable movie, a great advertising for curling in Italy.

In 2006, Torino's claim was "passion lives here." For curling in these parts, is that still true?