An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.
Much of the derision surrounding curling as an Olympic sport can be attributed to a widespread lack of knowledge about how the game actually works. Taking a few moments to familiarize oneself with the rules and setup can turn it into an enjoyable, albeit low-key, spectator sport. If you choose not to understand its inner workings, curling will look, well, just silly.
Field of Play
Curling is a game of skill and strategy played on a rectangular sheet of ice measuring 138 feet (42 meters) long and a little over 14 feet (4.2 meters) wide. At each end of the rink is a “house,” a series of concentric rings that looks like a large target painted under the ice. The center circle, or the bull’s-eye of the target, is called the button. A line running through the center of the button, from side to side as players face it, is called the tee line. Surrounding the button are three more concentric target rings measuring 4 feet, 8 feet, and 12 feet (1.2, 2.4, and 3.7 meters) wide, respectively.
At each end of the ice, behind the house, is a “hack”—two rubber blocks that serve as a push-off point for curlers, team members who deliver 42-pound curling “stones” toward the house on the other end by sliding them carefully along the ice for some distance and then releasing them.
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Another prominent feature of the rink is the “hog line,” a red line about a fourth of the way down the rink on each end that delineates the final point at which a curler can release a stone.
Curling ice is groomed to keep it perfectly level, then, unlike other competition ice, treated with a light spray of water before each game. The water freezes in place to form a granular surface more conducive to stone sliding.
Format, Rules, and Strategy
In some ways, curling is quite similar to lawn bowling or shuffleboard: The object is to place stones as near to the button, or center of the target, as possible while preventing the other team’s stones from doing the same. You’re awarded 1 point for every stone you have closer to the button than your opposition’s closest stone. (Thus, only one team scores during each “end” of play.)
Teams consist of four curlers per side—a “skip,” or team captain who stands at the opposing house and directs shots from teammates; a “vice skip” or “third” at the other end of the ice, helping with strategy; and a “lead” and “second,” whose job it is to throw the first and second stones and then influence their path down the ice by “sweeping” the ice in front of the stone with specially made brooms. The vice skip and skip also deliver stones, curling third and fourth, respectively. When the skip curls, the vice skip takes his or her place in the opposite house.
Using a broom for balance, curlers push off the hack at the end of the rink and slide ahead on one forward foot and one knee, holding the stone by the handle and releasing it with a spin—this is the “curl”—to give it the proper trajectory. A properly curled stone is often likened to a very slow-breaking curveball; the degree of spin gives it lateral movement.
The skip will direct two teammates to sweep the ice in front of an approaching stone, either to change its curl or to make it travel farther by reducing the friction on the ice in front of it.
The two teams alternate stone throws until all curlers have thrown two stones, for a total of 16. This constitutes one “end” of a game. (An end is like an inning in baseball.) Every game has 10 ends. The points are tallied up after each end, and the scoring team goes first in the next end, in which the stones are thrown in the opposite direction.
The team with the most points at the end of 10 ends wins. If it’s a tie, an extra end is played.
Strategy revolves around placement. Curlers can aim to deliver a “draw” stone, or one that stops somewhere within the playing surface, or a “takeout”—a shot designed specifically to bounce the other team’s stone out of the field of play. Strategically placed draw stones that come to rest in front of another stone, thereby preventing the opposition from taking that stone out, are called “guard stones.”
Watch it for a while and, although you might not pick up all the confusing terminology (for example, in curling the term “rink” is synonymous with “team,” as in “the Pete Fenson rink”), the game will begin to make sense.
Because each team curls eight stones per end, the maximum score for an end is 8 points, but teams usually wind up scoring 1 to 3 points. A game of 10 ends typically lasts about 2.5 hours, or about 15 minutes per end.
Training and Equipment
Although advocates point out that sweepers must be nimble on their feet and wind up walking the equivalent of up to 2 miles per match, this is hardly a sport you’re likely to see featured in a Gatorade commercial. It is, however, undoubtedly a precision pursuit. So the best training for curling is curling. Lots of practice makes perfect.
Curling is the one door left slightly ajar in the Olympics for “normal” folks—people without stupendous athletic ability. Most curlers have full-time careers outside their sport: Pete Fenson, captain or “skip” of the U.S. men’s bronze medal team at the Turin Games, operates a two-restaurant pizza chain, Dave’s Pizza, in Bemedji and Brainerd, Minnesota. Other Olympic curlers have been housewives, bankers, salesmen, science teachers, students, and consultants. Most of them are introduced to the sport through family or friends who belong to local curling leagues. The best of them advance to regional, then national competitions.
Dress is ice casual; curlers wear what appear to be track suits, with stretchy pants for all that bending and jackets that can be taken off should a curler manage to get warm.
Curling stones are made of granite, almost all of which is quarried in Scotland and delivered around the world in extremely low-riding container ships. They’re round spheres, slightly concave on the top and bottom, carefully balanced, with a plastic handle affixed to the top. Stones weigh 42 pounds (19 kilograms), with a diameter of 1 foot (30 centimeters) and a height of about 4.5 inches (11.5 centimeters). They never lift off the ice during competition—or at least one would hope not.
Shoes are low-cut, bowling style, allowing for ankle flexing while delivering the stone. The sole of the shoe on the foot used to slide out front during delivery (the left shoe for a right-hander) is slippery. The other shoe has a nonslip rubber sole.
Brooms have plastic handles and look an awful lot like a kitchen sponge mop, with a universal joint at the head allowing it to flex in all directions.