They've got stones: Curling requires serious skill

Alexander Bushroe
The deft touch and experience required to make the 18-to-20-kilogram stones curl on the ice takes years to hone and perfect.
Alexander Bushroe

The first Winter Olympics I remember watching was the 1998 edition held in Nagano, Japan. At that time, just before my 10th birthday, I was already a full-fledged sports fan. I played youth baseball and basketball and idolized my favorite professional sports stars. I watched gridiron football religiously every Saturday and Sunday and called out the names of my favorite NFL players as I mimicked their moves while playing with my friends in the yard.

But the one sport I was newly growing to love was ice hockey. I inherited the fandom from my father and, despite being totally unable to play the sport, I soaked up information about it like a sponge. The best players, what countries they were from, their career statistics, the past champions... I wanted to know everything there was to know about it. So when I learned that each famous player would be playing for their country's national team in the Winter Olympics, I couldn't wait to plop down on the sofa and get to watching.

When I turned on the TV, the scene that appeared on the screen was certainly taking place on ice, but it wasn't hockey. The playing surface looked more like something for a frozen version of lawn darts, with a giant target emblazoned on one end of the rectangular ice sheet. What was this strange game? The commentators announced that the final qualifying match for men's curling was set to begin. Perplexed, I turned to my father and asked, "What... what is curling?"

"You know shuffleboard?"

"Yeah... I mean... I guess."

"It's like that, but on ice. They slide these big stones down the ice and try to bump the opponent's stones out of the way and have them come to rest in the middle of the target area. Teammates with brooms will come and sweep the ice to try and control the stone's direction."

Sounds like fun, I thought, but... an Olympic sport? Not wanting to judge it before I'd seen it in action, I waited to have a look at what this curling business was really about.

And his description, as far as I could tell, was totally accurate. One player slid down the ice on one knee, releasing a big, round rock and letting it coast toward the concentric circles at the opposite end. Two teammates with small brooms swept furiously at the ice before the stone, having, as far as I could tell, no effect whatsoever aside from surely tiring out their arms.

This is the weirdest Olympic sport I've ever seen, I thought, but I was too fascinated to change the channel, and hockey wasn't set to begin for another three hours. So I watched the entire curling match to its end. I can't remember who won the match or what countries were even participating in it. The only thing I can recall, other than wanting to try the game for myself, is being befuddled by the sweeping. Did it really influence the giant rock at all?

They've got stones: Curling requires serious skill

China's Wang Zhiyu (center) is ready to release a stone as his teammates Zou Qiang (left) and Xu Jingtao look on during the first session of the men's team curling between China and Russian Olympic Committee at Beijing 2022 in the National Aquatics Center on February 10.

They've got stones: Curling requires serious skill

Xu Jingtao (left) and Zou Qiang sweep furiously at the ice before the stone.

It turns out that it does, and quite a bit. So much so that when a new type of broom head was introduced to the sport in 2014, it caused a major stir among players who feared that the new type of sweeper would manipulate the stone too much, thereby making the game easier for less-skilled participants and unduly leveling the playing field.

This controversy was dubbed "broomgate," because, of course, it was.

The brooms work because the heat generated from the friction from the sweeping motion slightly melts the ice under the bristles, decreasing the friction between the stone and the ice and allowing it to slide further and straighter.

However, this is not always desirable. Upon releasing the stone, the player adds a very small amount of rotation to it, which causes it to curve ― or "curl," from whence the sport gets its name ― in one direction or the other. Additionally, curling ice, unlike skating ice, is "pebbled," meaning that it is sprayed with water before each match to create tiny bumps on the ice's surface. This is what allows the stones to bend to the left or right. If the situation requires more curl, the sweepers will decide not to sweep at the ice and allow the stone's rotation and the pebbled ice to move it laterally.

This is far from an easy task. The deft touch and experience required to make the 18-to-20-kilogram stones curl on the ice takes years to hone and perfect. In fact, it's said that physicists have yet to fully understand what exactly causes the specific motion exhibited by a stone when it curls.

Curlers also wear shoes specific to the game, with one sole slick for sliding across the ice and the other rubbery for grip, allowing the player to push off to begin the throw. And despite having the appearance of an everyday pair of slacks, curling pants have an additional stretchiness to allow for the competitors to assume the lunging position for releasing a stone.

Now, despite having a great deal of respect for the skill and dexterity needed to be a curler, especially one at the international level, we must admit that the participants don't generally bear the prototypical Olympic physique. An Internet user recently posted an image of the US curling team, quipping that the squad looked like "a group of dads" seeking a weekend holiday but "somehow ended up competing in the Olympics."

And the comment isn't totally off-base; the guys do look like a group of average Joes. But their ability and the ability of all the Olympic teams to curl the hammer (final stone) from the hog line (starting line) to the house (target) and drop it right on the button (target's center) is world class.

So flip on the curling during the Games this year and have a look for yourself. And remember, even if most of the competitors don't look like they could outrun Usain Bolt, they certainly have boatloads of talent.

Sweep on!

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