UISEONG, South Korea — Here is an insight into the Garlic Girls at the Winter Olympics:
One Tuesday afternoon, townspeople gathered inside the gymnasium here at Uiseong Girls High School to root for the South Korean women’s curling team, whose match against the United States was shown on a big screen as an M.C. leaned into a microphone and banged on a drum.
“It’s definitely the power of the garlic,” she said. “It’s the healthiest food in the world.”
It was the biggest, loudest party in the province, and for good reason: The team’s top four players grew up in this small county of about 54,000 people and graduated from this high school. Now, thanks to an improbable run at the Olympics being held in Pyeongchang, about 80 miles to the north, the team — dubbed the Garlic Girls by the Korean press, owing to the region’s production of garlic — seems on the cusp of international celebrity. Never mind that the Garlic Girls, with their dominant record in pool play, have vaulted themselves into medal position in a sport that is still foreign to most South Koreans.
“They’re inspiring a lot of young kids to participate in winter sports, and not just curling,” said Do Ki-min, 29, who got an excused absence from work at the county office so he could watch Tuesday’s match at the high school. “My boss is here, too.”
Curling is a game played on a sheet of ice in which the athletes use brooms to guide polished granite rocks toward a target. Its roots date to 16th-century Scotland. But it was not until 2006 that one of South Korea’s first curling facilities was built — here in Uiseong. A former government official had seen the sport while traveling in Canada and thought it would appeal to a wide range of people. So the county cobbled together the funds to build the Gyeongbuk Uiseong Curling Centre.
Kim Joo-soo, the current county mayor, said in an interview at his office that four friends (including two sisters) from Uiseong Girls High School soon became regulars. They thought it was a fun after-school activity. Nobody knew they would become Olympians. Their path to Olympic stardom was not without obstacles. In recent years, the Korean curling federation was roiled by a sexual abuse case that involved a former coach and by the misappropriation of training funds. But the players on the current team persevered, and banners featuring their faces and the Olympic rings are now scattered across Uiseong.
The region is known for its garlic. Cartoon garlic bulbs smile from billboards. Garlic statues dot the countryside. Kim Joo-soo, the mayor, deemed it the finest garlic in the world. It is all because of a volcano that erupted 70 million years ago, he said, and left ash that enriched the soil.
Now, all these millenniums later, the city has sprouted something new.
They arrived from all corners of Uiseong County. They brought homemade signs, waved flags and screamed for every shot. They came to celebrate four young women from this farming community who have emerged as the most unexpected (and most gloriously bespectacled) stars of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
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