The Joy of Curling

Before the Winter Olympics started, I considered writing a satirical post about how excited I was for curling. I didn’t consider it for long, though, because faux-excitement for the Winter Olympics and for curling in particular was sort of played out. The Winter Olympics are pretty much a joke in America; women pay attention to the figure skating, and sports journalists try to make a big deal out of skiing and speed skating (so long as they’re both headed by good-looking marketable stars). Curling was the biggest joke of all, a ludicrous extension of the term “sport” into the realm of bocce and shuffleboard played out on ice, complete with brooms.

Now that I have watched curling, I have come to a conclusion that I guess shouldn’t surprise me too much: Curling is awesome. Curling is awesome because, while not a sport, it is the closest thing the Winter Olympics has to a sport outside of hockey. This is because it is played in teams with objective scoring. There are curling matches, whereas everything else in the Winter Olympics is either judged or a race—or in some ridiculous cases, such as Moguls, a hybrid of the two. Simple comparisons to bocce or shuffleboard are misguided because they underestimate the dramatic and propulsive influence of the ice. In bocce, you’re just trying to get your ball closest to the Pauline; on both sand and grass, it’s very difficult to really deflect the opposition’s balls further from the target. In shuffleboard, you can’t put spin on the puck; everything is in straight lines.

That’s not true in curling, as its name implies. The stones are rarely thrown on a straight line, but are rather “curled” down the ice. This adds a tremendous amount of strategy to the game since you can curl your stone around potential obstacles or to deflect opponent’s stones from different angles, leading to myriad outcomes. Hitting a stone straight on will knock it straight back and stop yours; hitting it thin on the inside will bump it a short distance in the opposite direction and, potentially, off more stones.

These strategic elements are what make curling so fascinating, particularly to a first-time viewer such as myself. Let’s face it: It’s rare these days to watch a sport in America and not understand its basic strategy. By this point, I pretty much know what Georgetown should do against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone (Monroe on the high post, obvs), that you exploit the cover-two with the tight end down the seam, and that Santana likes to double up on the changeup on the outside corner for strike three. Slowly deducing the strategies in a different sport is fun and challenging. It requires more concentration and more thought into what each team is trying to do with each shot and how that strategy changes based on which team has the “hammer,” or last licks in an “end,” which is what they call an inning, of which there are “10,” and not the nine that I keep assuming.

Each end plays out like a mini chess match, with each team strategizing not just for the next move, but for the response to the opponent’s next move, and so forth down the line. Like chess, it’s all about visualizing the ice and how everything should play out with the important qualification that there is an actual physical endeavor that has to be carried out. You don’t just move the stone into the proper location. You have to throw it with the perfect combination of weight and spin so that it curls there properly, and being off on either by an ounce or an inch dramatically alters the game.*

*Just look at the fate of the American team, which is 0-4. I’ve watched parts of America’s last three losses, each of which went into an extra 11th end and each of which were lost when the team’s final curler (the “fourth” and possibly also the “skip”; either way, he’s supposed to be the best) missed relatively straightforward (within the context of curling) game-winning shots. It’s essentially the equivalent of a closer blowing three consecutive saves in playoff games. His name, by the way, is John Shuster, and he is the goat of these Olympic games.

I’m not saying that I’m gonna run out to the local curling rink (which I believe is in Minnesota, where all four of America’s players are from) or start following curling beyond next week. But so much of the charm of the Olympics is witnessing events with which we’re not familiar and the elements that make them so appealing to their practitioners. And curling, brooms, argyle pants, and heartbreaking losses, is the most appealing of all.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Barbara on February 19, 2010 at 12:16 AM

    It’s closer than Minnesota, South Plainfield, NJ has a curling club with quite a few hoping to make the next Winter Olympics. Check it out at Open House & lessons 2/28/10.


  2. Posted by only dodgers' fan friend on February 19, 2010 at 2:20 AM

    i started watching curling just to make fun of it and i was actually riveted. the women’s match against Japan was especially entertaining, when they had to bring out a measuring to stick to show that the Japanese won by a centimeter or something. absurd.


  3. […] swears he wrote his ode to curling long before Dan Wetzel and Rick Reilly did their own. And that he hasn’t spent his entire […]


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