By Steve Keating
Jan 30 (Reuters) - Canada and Sweden will seek to complete curling Olympic gold medal hat-tricks at the Sochi Olympics while trying to nudge the ancient niche sport a little closer to the modern mainstream.
A game played with brooms, curling will never sweep spectators off their feet the same way the downhill racers will but every four years the sporting world renews its fascination with the medieval game that has surprisingly produced some of the Olympics' highest television ratings.
With nearly one million registered curlers in Canada, more than the rest of the world combined, the sport enjoys a high profile in the country with competitions routinely attracting sold-out crowds and top television ratings.
But along with that popularity come expectations.
Only the Canadian men's and women's ice hockey teams in Sochi will be under greater pressure than the curlers to bring home gold.
Since curling was added to the Olympic lineup at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Canadian rinks have won medals at each edition in the men's and women's events.
On the men's side Canada has been the dominant force, taking silver in Nagano and Salt Lake City and gold in Turin and Vancouver.
The torch has now been passed to Brad Jacobs who will try to skip Canada to a third straight gold in Sochi while Jennifer Jones will bid to put the Canadian women on top of the podium for the first time since Nagano and end a run of silver and bronze medal finishes.
Jacobs's fist-pumping foursome head to Russia as the title favourites having marched through the Canadian Olympic trials - considered by many a higher quality competition than the Olympics - undefeated, including a victory over reigning Olympic champion Kevin Martin.
"We're a confident group of guys right now and there's no reason not to be after winning the Olympic trials out of Canada," said Jacobs.
"You win that and you should be very confident that you can bring back the gold for Canada and we're looking forward to getting out there and hopefully strutting our stuff and playing like we did at the trials."
The Canadians, however, certainly won't be the only rink strutting their stuff at Sochi's Ice Cube Curling Centre.
Thomas Ulsrud's Norwegian foursome, silver medal winners in 2010, are back and ready to turn heads again with more of the outrageous, eye-popping outfits that turned the quirky rink into instant cult figures.
The fun-loving Norwegians became social media darlings in Vancouver with their harlequin-patterned pants and have promised more sartorial surprise in Sochi.
Niklas Edin's Swedish foursome may not be as flashy as the Norwegians but will fancy their gold medal chances having beaten Jacobs's Canada rink on their home ice in Victoria, British Columbia, to win the world championship.
Britain will not lack experience in their push for a podium with double world champion skip David Murdoch joining forces with Tom Brewster's rink to form a Scottish dream team, that flashed their potential with a bronze medal placing at last year's worlds.
Over in the women's draw, Anette Norberg, who skipped Sweden to back-to-back golds in Turin and Vancouver, will not be in Sochi, leaving it to Margaretha Sigfridsson's European championship rink to make it three in a row for the Tre Kronor.
World champion Eve Muirhead and her Scottish foursome could be Britain's best shot at Sochi gold while China will look for a return to the podium following a breakthrough bronze in Vancouver.
"We would be happy if we get a medal," said Sigfridsson. "We know we have the ability to play for gold as well but we know it will be very tough and we are willing to do our best there and the team that has the best week will of course win."
Curling itself could be the big winner in Sochi.
With each Olympics the sport has seen its profile raised attracting more and more fans, among them rockers Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi who reportedly have on occasion rented ice time and picked up the brooms.
The world's most famous curler, however, could well be Homer Simpson, the beer-swilling, doughnut-guzzling cartoon character who chased his Olympic dreams in an episode ahead of the Vancouver Winter Games by curling. (Editing by Julien Pretot)