Though curling may look easy enough to the casual Olympic viewer, this ice-rink staple is anything but simple
urling is sometimes called shuffleboard on ice, and it might look easy. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The game is actually quite difficult, because it involves the strategy of chess, the use of angles like in billiards and the shot-making skills of a pro golfer. “There is so much more [to curling] than meets the eye,” says John Benton, a member of the U.S. curling team during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, and a current USA Curling coach.
The British curling team gathers at the inaugural 1924 Olympic Winter Games, held in Chamonix, France
A match is played between two teams, each made up of four players, and can last up to three hours. During 10 ends, which are similar to innings in baseball, the two teams take turns throwing. In each end, 16 rocks (large iron- or tea kettle–shaped projectiles made from polished granite and each weighing a hefty 44 pounds) are released, eight by one team and eight by the opposing team. Each player sends two rocks down a regulation-size 145-foot-long sheet of pebbled ice per turn. The team that has the most rocks stop closest to the center of the house, or target, wins the game. Like golf, curling is a gentlemanly game. The rules of etiquette require that players call their own fouls, and honesty is of the utmost importance. The game also demands endurance, stamina and stability from its players. The average curler may walk as much as 2.5 miles during a match.
A member of China’s curling team releases a rock during a men’s match between China and France at the Vancouver games
Each team is composed of the lead, the second, the vice skip and the skip. All players are involved in every throw, and they rotate their positions throughout the game—except for the skip, who stands opposite his or her team at the end of the ice sheet for three turns and then switches with the vice skip when it’s the skip’s turn to throw. “The skip calls the strategy,” says Benton. According to the rules, the lead always throws first. Once a rock is in play, the second and the vice skip walk in front of the rock and sweep the ice with long-handled brooms, controlling the rock’s momentum and gently guiding it toward the house at the other end of the ice sheet. “Sweeping can’t actually turn the rock, but it can make it go farther,” Benton says.
There are three basic moves in curling. Rocks are thrown to score, to guard another rock thrown by the same team or to remove one of the opposing team’s rocks from the house. The skip guides his or her teammates by telling the thrower where to aim the rock and the sweepers how vigorously they should sweep and in what direction. As in the game of boccie, in which points are earned based on how closely a ball lands relative to a target, a player earns a point in curling for each rock he or she gets closer to the tee, or bull’s-eye, of the house compared to an opponent’s rocks. Another similar aspect to boccie is that a player can knock his or her opponent’s rocks away from the tee during a game.
“Curling is a sport of precision,” says Benton. “Each shot has to be perfectly executed, from the turn of the rock’s handle to the efficiency of the sweeping. All four players are working in unison to call a perfect shot each time.”
Thomas Ulsrud, of Norway, slides a rock down the ice during the gold medal match between Canada and Norway at the 2010 Vancouver games
These precise movements, combined with the game’s hypnotic rhythm, add nail-biting tension to the atmosphere, bringing spectators to the edge of their seat as they strain to capture every detail of the throw. Each decision made by a skip, each rock’s trip down the ice and each brush of the broom might look alike at first glance, but they are all subtly different and critical to a match’s outcome. And to show respect for their opponent, the winning team buys the losing team a drink after the match. In the curling world, this tradition is known as broom stacking.
CHUCK TANNERT is a regular contributor to RL Magazine. His work also has appeared in Wired and on CNET.
Additional reporting by LAURA CHALLENDER