Olympics

02.13.14

Curling: Your New Olympic Addiction, Explained

Why are those people screaming at the little round things? Why are those other people sweeping the ice? Why have you been glued to the TV for three hours? Brett Singer explains curling.

During the Winter Olympics, viewers can count on seeing plenty of figure skating, ski-jumping (this year with women!) and ice hockey in primetime. But here is the first in an occasional series of articles about some of the weirder, Winter Olympics events primetime may overlook.

Sport: Curling

Weirdness Factor If You've Never Seen It Before: High.

Reason To Watch: Curling is fun to watch because it seems like something you could do if you practiced. Many Olympic curlers have full-time jobs; the Skip (team captain) of Denmark's women's curling team is a risk analyst in Copenhagen who practices after work. That's not going to cut it with figure skating.

When I started researching this article, I was interested in curling. Now I'm setting my Tivo so I don't miss a single stone. Yesterday I shouted at the television like a loon as Team USA was forced to concede to Great Britain after only 6 ends.

Curling History In Brief

Curling started in Scotland in 1511, was a men-only event in the 1924 Olympics, and then got benched. Curling returned to become an official Olympic sport in 1998, with teams for both genders. This was inevitable, because as we all know, if it’s not Scottish, it's crap.

Curling Terminology:

Stones: those big heavy looking things with handles on them that slide on the ice. They are made of granite, weigh approximately 42 pounds, and each one is unique.

Sheet: the playing field, literally a sheet of ice.

House: the big circles on either side of the sheet.

Button: the smaller circle inside the big circles.

End: like an inning in baseball, except shorter and with less spitting.

What Is Curling? The Extremely Simplistic Answer

Curling has been described as being similar to bowling, pool, and chess. For the sake of simplicity, let's go with "team shuffleboard on ice." The object of the game is to get your stones closest to the center of the house.

What Is Curling? The More Detailed Answer

The curling sheet is "more or less" 15 feet wide and 140 feet long. See Figure 1.1, "Sheet Dimensions", at CurlingSchool.com. Can you imagine the rules of a popular American sport using the phrase "more or less" to describe the playing field? "So, like, in the NFL, the field is more or less 100 yards. Whatevs." On both sides of the sheet there is a large circle (the house, or as the Scots say, "hoose") with a smaller circle inside it (the button).

A curling match has 10 ends. The team that finishes with the closest stone to the center of the house is awarded points as follows: If a team manages to keep all of the other teams' stones out of the house, they get one point for each of their stones that is in the house. If both teams have stones in the house, the team whose stone is closest to the center gets one point for each stone that is closer to the button than the other team's. Only one team is allowed to score in each end, and it is possible to have an end in which no points are awarded.

If that sounds confusing, don't worry. It is. Luckily the judges seem to understand it. After you watch a few ends, you'll probably figure it out.

That's Nice. Why Is It Called "Curling"?

Little drops of water called pebble are dribbled all over the sheet in order to “reduce the resistance between the surfaces of the ice and stone.” The pebble causes the stone to curl, hence the name.

Note: Olympic commentators and curling articles use the terms "stone" and "rock" interchangeably. This is extremely unhelpful to non-curling fans, which is most people.

You Say Curling Is A Team Sport. How Many Players Are On A Team And What Do They Do?

There are four positions on a curling team: the Lead, the Second, the Vice-Skip and the Skip. Everybody does a bit of everything, the way they used to do it in the NFL.

Each team member delivers (or slides) two stones per end in the following order: Lead, Second, Vice-Skip, and Skip. The teams alternate throws — Team X's Lead throws stone #1, Team Y's Lead throws stone #1 / Team X's Lead throws stone #2, Team Y's Lead throws stone #2... and so on. The Skip is responsible for team strategy and is the player you see standing in the circle with their broom on the ice, indicating where they want the stone to be delivered.

The delivery of a stone is followed by a lot of shouting (remember, it's a Scottish sport) — "Yup! Yup!" "Hard! Hard!" from English-speaking curlers, "Sveep! Sveep!" "Nyet! Nyet!" from Russians — to let the sweepers know whether or not to frantically attack the ice with their brooms. Sweeping "raises the temperature of the ice by a degree or two, which diminishes the friction between the pebble and the stone and keeps the stone moving in a straight line." Or to put it another way, sweeping helps make the stone not curl.

Players act as sweepers when they are not delivering stones. They also discuss strategy.

Strategy? What Are You Talking About?

Strategy is a very important element of curling. To wit: Each team throws eight stones per end. You want to use your lead stones to guard (or block) the other team's stones from getting into the house, or use them to guard (in this case "guard" means "protect") one of your stones. Later in the end, depending on where the stones have landed, you may want to hit your opponent's stones to try and knock them out of the house. (This is where the comparisons to chess come from, even though the only time I've ever seen chess pieces knock each other around was in a Harry Potter movie.) Strategy decisions are made by the Skip but everyone weighs in, creating a kaffeeklatsch on the sheet (minus the coffee). Since it is impossible to predict precisely how a stone will curl, the late throws by the Skip are crucial, as is the decision about where to deliver the stones.

Why Should You Care About Curling?

According to Team USA Skip Erika Brown, curling became more popular the past two Olympics thanks to an increase in U.S. television coverage. It probably helped that the 2010 Winter Olympics were held in Vancouver; curling is very big in Canada. During Team USA's recent loss to the Russian Women's team, commentators noted that curling has been getting more attention from the Russian press as well, especially the telegenic Russian Skip Anna Sidorova. Sidorova's team is also playing very well as of this writing, handily beating Team USA, who are currently 0-3.

Things To Say If You Need To Sound Smart In Polite Company:

"Did you see the pants the Norwegian men's curling team is wearing this year?"

The men of Team Norway's Curling Team wear funny-looking pants. I think it's a tactic to distract their opponents; watching Team USA lose to Norway on Monday, I was reminded of the Pokémon episode that gave almost 700 kids seizures in the late 90's

"Do you know where curling stones come from?"

Every curling stone used in the Curling World Championships and the Olympics is hewn from "distinctive, water-resistant microgranite" found in the quarries of Ailsa Craig, an island off the coast of Scotland. The island is a nesting place for two varieties of seabirds, gannets and puffins; other features include a lighthouse, a cottage, and the ruins of a 16th Century castle. The reason this sounds like a real estate listing is because Ailsa Craig is for sale. We emailed Vladi Private Islands, the agency handling the property for the Marquess of Ailsa, who told us that they are in "very serious negotiations with an environmental foundation", but if you are in the market for an island, the price is a mere 1,500,000 GBP, roughly 2.5 million American dollars.

Olympic commentators and curling articles use the terms ‘stone’ and ‘rock’ interchangeably. This is extremely unhelpful to non-curling fans, which is most people.”

"Stephen Colbert tried out for the Olympic Curling Team in 2010. He didn't make it but it was funny."

More Information About Olympic Curling:

Curling is not only an Olympic sport. The World Curling Federation organizes World Curling Championship and Challenge events for Women, Men, Mixed Doubles, Seniors, Juniors, and a World Wheelchair Championship.

In the Winter Olympics, there are ten men's teams and ten women's teams. The host country gets one slot for each gender. The other nine countries are culled from teams that have gained the most qualification points from the three previous Men’s and Women’s World Curling Championships.

How Old Are The Curlers?

Unlike figure skating, where Russia's Evgeni Plushenko is considered a dinosaur at 31, the age of Olympic curlers is more varied.

According to ABC News, curling boasts the oldest average age for Olympic athletes — 33.90. At 45, curler Ann Swisshelm is the oldest member of Team USA. Team Switzerland's Skip Mirjam Ott is 42; her nickname is "the Swiss Miss" and she was part of the Silver Medal winning Olympic teams in 2002 and 2006. Alexandra Saitova of Team Russia is 21, while her Skip Anna Sidorova is 23. Sidorova competed in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games when she was only 19 years old, serving as Skip for several matches. Team USA Skip Erika Brown is 41; her brother Craig Brown is 38 and is in Sochi as an alternate for the Men's team. Norwegian curler Thomas Ulsrud (one of the guys with those funky pants) is 42.

Where Do Curlers Come From?

Canada is the country where curling is king. For proof check out this PDF, "Long-Term Athlete Development For Curling in Canada." The document lays out a lifetime program designed to train curlers young and old.

In general, curlers need to be physically fit. The curling stones weigh over 40 pounds, and delivering one to the house requires strong knees. This curling-centric fitness camp mentions the importance of flexibility and balance (think yoga), as well as "targeting muscle groups that are most critical to both the sweeping motion and the delivery of the stone." Basically, you don't need abs of steel, but you can't just sit on your couch eating cronuts and expect to be a competitive curler.

I couldn't confirm any truly professional curlers, that is, athletes who have no other job than curling. There is prize money in some Canadian curling tournaments. Canadian curler Cheryl Bernard wrote a book about curling and is a motivational speaker. (Bernard's team did not make the cut for the 2014 Winter Olympics.) And the Brown family of Team USA have a successful business selling curling equipment.

Fun links:

Quiz: Curling Term or Quidditch Term?

If you score higher than 50%, you are probably a Potter-file or a really big fan of curling.

Curling's Team USA made a video parody of the Ylvis song "The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?)" called "What The Skip Say?"

Jonathan Coulton's song "Curl," with footage of Stephen Colbert trying out for the 2010 U.S. Curling Team.