The Winter Olympics has two sports that compete for the honor of being the Games’ weirdest event: biathlon and curling. The former involves cross-country skiing with occasional breathers to shoot a rifle you just happened to bring along with you, and was invented by Norwegian soldiers because that’s the sort of thing one does in the Norwegian Armed Forces. The latter, which you’re about to learn how to watch, was invented by medieval Scots after they went on a cruise to Florida, discovered shuffleboard and brought it back home and put it on ice.
The Sochi Olympics curling competitions began Monday and they’ll be broadcast on U.S. television later in the day, so now’s a good time to figure out what this sport’s all about.
What Is Curling?
It really is similar to shuffleboard or bocce, except on ice: Two teams of four players a piece have to slide 44-pound stones across a lane ice called a “sheet,” trying to get their stones closest to a target on the other side called the “house.” A single game of Olympic curling features 10 “ends,” sort of like innings in baseball. During an end, each team throws eight stones in back-to-back order. The last stone is called “the hammer,” and players are encouraged to yell “Imma Droppin’ tha Hammer” as loud as they possibly can when throwing it.
Are there positions?
You bet. Each of a team’s four players has a specific job: In order of when they throw, there’s the lead, second, vice and skip. Players are also usually sorted in order of how good they are: The least talented thrower is typically the lead, as there will be less already-thrown stones in their way. The skip is the team captain, throwing the most difficult shots, having the deciding call on the strategy behind each throw and guiding the sweeping on each shot.
Yeah, what’s with all the sweeping?
Curling has more sweeping than a Yankees-Mets Subway Series (Sorry, Mets fans). This is what separates curling from its landlubbing cousins — after a stone is thrown, two players rush down the ice in front of it, frantically sweeping the ice in an attempt to fine-tune the stone’s distance and direction. They’re directed by the skip, who hangs out in back to monitor the stone’s progress. A great curling team can turn a stone from a dumb bomb into a laser-guided missile.
Sounds easy enough, and also kind of boring.
Aha! But here’s where things get interesting: The winning team is the one with a stone nearest the center of the house (called the “button,” because curling is adorable). Teams get a point for each stone that’s closer to the button than those of their opponents. Strategy translation: After the first few throws, which are often protected by the “free guard zone rule,” teams start to face a choice: Do we go for the button, do we aim to knock the other team’s stones out of scoring range, or do we start to block the other team from being able to get close?
Curling’s scoring system means watching the end of a close match can be thrilling the same way as watching a football kicker attempt a game-deciding field goal: It’s a mixture of anxiety, nerves and excitement. It’s also a great sport to watch casually, especially considering most of us only get to see it every four years (more wonkiness on curling strategy can be enjoyed here).
Is curling hyper-competitive?
On the ice, sure — but there’s also the “Spirit of Curling,” a written code of honor that emphasizes good sportsmanship. And then there’s the tradition of “broomstacking,” when competing teams get together after their match and enjoy some fine brews. Even if beers aren’t swapped, curling competitors at all levels are generally expected to hang out with their opponents after a game.
So does Team USA have a shot?
Team USA curling has only medaled once in the five previous Winter Games the sport’s been part of the competitions — the American men’s team, captained by a bar manager from Minnesota and made up of other regular people with day jobs who just happen to enjoy this strange sport, picked up bronze in 2006. The game’s powerhouses have historically been countries with more well-developed curling systems, including Canada, Switzerland and Sweden. However, curling wasn’t even on the Winter Olympics’ official program until the Nagano games in ’98, so in some ways it’s still a “young” Olympic sport — meaning the playing field, like the ice, is level.
Alright, cool. How do I watch?
Curling competitions began in Sochi Monday, and they’ll be airing on NBC throughout the day and beyond. Check your local NBC listings here, then curl up on the couch and enjoy.