The first time I watched an Olympic curling match on television, I entertained a thought that is surely shared by everyone who sees the sport for the first time: What the hell am I looking at?
It was during the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I tuned in to the live feed at the very beginning of a women's medal match. I was intrigued by the grace of the players and how they could effortlessly slide those huge, bulb-like stones down the ice. But everything else about it was confusing. It looked sort of like shuffleboard, but with more yelling. And lots of weird stuff. The rules, the lingo, they way they used brooms—brooms!—to make the stones slide around. And it just seemed so boring. How could anyone endure watching a sport with such a lack of obvious athleticism, such inscrutable gameplay, and such a lethargic pace?
By the two hour mark, I was riveted. I still didn't understand what the brooms were for, but I was beginning to figure out the rules. The lingo was beginning to make sense. And I was absolutely consumed by the drama. When the match ended, I quickly set my DVR to record every curling broadcast for the rest of the Olympics, including reruns. I was hooked. What had started as a chance encounter with an esoteric sport had ended in an insatiable thirst for more, immediately.
Curl You Know It's True
Curling is absolutely the best sport to watch on television, particularly for viewers looking for an escape from the frantic "more, faster, bigger, higher" grind of most televised games. Watching basketball or hockey can get you so hyped up, you feel like drinking a Red Bull and doing jumping jacks. Watching curling makes you want to drink a glass of red wine and lie down on the shag carpet. Curling is deliberate. Thoughtful, even. The games move very slowly. The players spend a lot of time talking strategy. There are nods and quiet words of encouragement; rarely are there disagreements. When it comes time for a team member to play their turn by sliding a stone down the ice, the moves are elegant. There's a wind up, a push-off, a slide, and a gentle release. Such poise and finesse!
Before my words dissolve into a string of breathless sighs, let me tell you about the game itself. Curling does indeed resemble shuffleboard (also bocce or petanque), where the object is to get as many of your game pieces as close as you can to the marker at the other end of the field of play. Teams are made up of four players each. One player slides the stone down the ice while two of the other players sweep the ice in front of the stone with brooms to try to control the stone's speed and direction of travel.
Then there's all that funny lingo. The stone is often called a "rock." The field of play is a "sheet." The goal marker at the other end of the sheet is called the "house." There's some funny equipment too: special shoes, those brooms, and the rocks themselves. The smooth, 44-pound pieces of granite make cool clunking sounds when they knock into each other. (There's a rock emoji, natch.) The stones slide differently depending on the sheet, going straight or curving naturally, and sweeping can control these factors. The team captain is, simply, "skip." The skip does most of the yelling, known as "line calling." These are commands for the sweepers that tell them how "hard" or "easy" to sweep.
Each round of play is called an "end." Teams throw eight rocks per end. The more rocks you get in the house, the more points you score, though only one team can score per end. You tally up the winner's points at the conclusion of each end; after ten ends, the team with the most points wins the match.
The powerhouse teams come from countries you'd expect; the territories ringing the Arctic circle like Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Russia. The US does very well on the international circuit. Asia has made some strong showings lately—Korea and China in particular.
You'd assume the competitors are unathletic. After all, there's no running, jumping, or dunking. But curlers are almost all in great shape. You can tell because the uniforms are form-fitting. And since their faces are unobscured by helmets, goggles, or any protective equipment, you can read their emotions in full 4K and really get eye-to-eye with them in your living room. When a player screams in anguish at bad throw, you're right there next to them. Curlers are crush-worthy. They become sympathetic characters. Sometimes literally; this one looks like Mario. The long matches, often stretching to two and half hours, give you the chance to develop close bonds with particular athletes. The teams too—I was rooting hard for the Swiss women's team during the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy. The rest of the time, my allegiances belong to perennial underdogs Denmark.
My Curl Friday
The casual observer watching at home can pick up all the important stuff over the course of a single game. When I watched that fateful first match, I was biting my nails in frustration as the rocks stopped well short of the house. But the strategy revealed itself over time. Those weren't bad throws, that was one team setting up defensive blocks so they could tuck the next throw behind one of those shielding rocks, making it harder for the other team to knock away their points.
Though games can get very intense very quickly, things stay pretty relaxed most of the time. It's in those long stretches of nothing where you'll find the true joy of curling as a televised sport. Turn on a match in the evening, dim the lights, and feel the pressures of your other life fall away into an epic, dripping slowness. Silence your phone, flip it upside down on the coffee table, and enter the alternate Curliverse where you can gently slide your worries down the ice on a cushion of tranquility.
A new style of play is being tested for the first time at the Gangneung Curling Centre in Korea: mixed doubles. This form of curling has two players per team—one man, one woman—instead of four, and games last eight ends instead of ten. Gameplay is a brisk 90 minutes instead of the afternoon-filling two or three hours. More points are scored, and it's supposedly an easier event to watch. Honestly, it sounds neat and I hope it exposes more people to curling.
But I'll continue to advocate for the original version. It's longform television at its finest. I could watch hours and hours of curling on TV, and over the next three weeks, I will. Maybe someday, I'll actually see a match played live.
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This story was updated to correct a detail about the rules of mixed doubles curling