What is curling?
Seemingly simple. A granite rock, a sheet of ice, a target 42 yards away. Finish with your rocks closer to the target than your opponents’, and your team of four wins a game in which keen competition mixes with a wonderful social atmosphere.
But wait: this is an Olympic sport, played by people across the world from ages 8 to 80. There must be more to it.
And there is. The rocks curl (or curve) down the sheet, traveling over an ice surface rife with nuances thanks to specially applied ‘pebble’ of frozen mist that lets the 42-pound rocks move with surprisingly little effort. Finesse and control of how hard rocks are thrown (the ‘weight’) become the important factors, not strength.
The weight of a thrown rock affects the amount of curl, but a rock’s progress can be altered by judicious sweeping to polish the ice in front of it, making a rock move both farther and straighter. Added complications are crafty opponents who place their stones in positions to block your access to the center of the target (the ‘house’). You have to think several rocks ahead to make sure that, at the completion of each end of 16 rocks, your rocks are closest to the button, the center of the house.
So curling is a game of strategy, of finesse, and yes of fitness. A team’s sweepers travel up to two miles in a game and, at the highest levels of the sport, expend the same energy as a sprinter in a 200 meter dash.
Watching curling during the Winter Olympics? Here are some FAQs about the sport:
Q: Who throws and who sweeps?
A: In the team game (four players per team), every player throws two rocks. Three players on the team will sweep the length of the ice; the skip directs the strategy and holds a broom to provide a target. He or she only sweeps after stones arrive at the target area, or house. When it’s the skip’s turn to throw, another player takes the place of the skip and holds the broom. In mixed doubles, both team members throw. Each “end” (the curling equivalent of an inning) starts with one rock of each color placed on the ice, and each team throws a total of five rocks. The player who’s not throwing can either sweep the stone or stand at the end to hold the broom. Also in doubles, players throwing will often pop up and sweep their own stones.
Q: What does sweeping do?
A: Sweeping melts a tiny bit of the ice surface, causing the rock to travel farther. And depending on when the sweeping is done, sweeping can help the rock move with less curl or more curl. If the players sweep soon after the throw, the rock will travel in a straighter line. If the players sweep near the end of the rock’s path, when it’s curling, sweeping can “drag” the rock further in the curled direction.
Q: How do players know when to sweep?
A: If the sweepers see that the rock was thrown too lightly and is likely to end up short of where the skip wanted, they will sweep from the start to help it go farther – and will shout to the skip to let him or her know. The skip watches the rock as it’s traveling and may call for sweeping to alter its path. As part of determining strategy, the skip will consider what will happen with rocks that are off the mark. In other words, they may have Plan B in mind and will call for sweeping accordingly.
Q: Why are some rocks outside of the target?
A: The first few rocks thrown in team curling usually are intended to end up in front of the target, or house. They’re called guards and they will provide cover for subsequent rocks that will land in the house. Guards are an important part of curling strategy. According to the rules of team curling, guards can’t be removed until after each team has thrown two rocks. But if the first rocks are placed directly in the house, the opposing team can take them out.
Q: How is curling ice different from skating ice?
A: Curling ice is textured (pebbled) so that the rocks slide and don’t freeze to the ice. We use a device that looks like a sprinkler head to accomplish this. Curlers try to keep the ice very clean during a game, as a bit of dirt can alter the path of a stone drastically. It’s also why players clean the bottom of their rocks before they throw.
Q: How is curling scored?
A: Only one team can score in each end. A team gets one point for each of its rocks that are closer to the center than the other team. The colored circles don’t have anything to do with scoring except to help the players determine which rock is closer. For example, if there’s only one red rock in the house, red scores one point, regardless of whether the rock is right on the button or just touching the outer circle.
Q: What’s on the bottom of curling shoes?
A: One shoe has Teflon or steel on the bottom for sliding out of the hack (the fixtures in the ice that look like starting blocks). The nonsliding shoe has a rubber sole for stability on the ice.
For more details on the rules of curling, see the Wikipedia page or the Curling Canada website.