*from the author’s limited knowledge of this mysterious, compelling sport
By Tim Rowland
This week’s Explore More takes you indoors to find out what all the fuss over curling is about — a sport that, to me, had always appeared as if shuffleboard were being played on ice by young accountants.
The FISU World University Games was a winter sports fan’s dream, compelling entertainment every day seasoned with an international flair that belied Adirondackian tradition as a remote outpost.
We understand most of these sports. If you ski the fastest, skate the prettiest or go tuchas over teakettle the most number of times on a glorified sheet of plywood, you win.
Then there’s curling.
I was in a remote corner of Newfoundland once on an icy, rocky coast and, taking in the spartan yet alluring scene, I mentioned to a grizzled native how pretty I thought it was. He studied me awhile before spitting out in the lingering accent of the old world, “Ya think it’s pretty, du ya? Well I don’t. All we got here is rokes.”
Well sure, but in sporting evolution, you take ice, “rokes” and probably a fair amount of Scotch and you get curling. A team of Scots (from whom curling originated in the 1500s) under the British flag won the University Games men’s curling gold medal, which seems appropriate. But the American team was hot on their heels, taking silver, as the sport gains currency on this side of the pond.
Curling had a bit of a moment in the Beijing Olympics, generating social media and pop-culture chatter for a sport that at first blush seems absurd, but has a curious magnetism that draws you in the more you watch.
Curling drew big crowds to the Saranac Lake Civic Center, sparkling under a new, $7 million remodeling in anticipation of the games. The tip here is, if you don’t want or need another sport to become fixated upon, don’t start watching curling, because you will get sucked into the curling vortex.
When we sat down and I scoped out the arena, where five games were taking place at once — with nothing you would initially mistake for action — and thought, “How am I going to sit through two hours of this.” But by late morning, as the last game went into extra innings (called ends), I was leaning forward as Japan edged out Czechoslovakia as the Czech’s last stone missed its mark by a whisper.
And yes, I know, it’s the Czech Republic, not Czechoslovakia, but here’s the true story on that. When I was a little kid, I was fascinated by the globe that was a ubiquitous feature of all school classrooms of that era. And I was fascinated by the big long strange word Czechoslovakia, and I was determined I would learn how to spell it. And I did. C-z-e-c-h-o-s-l-o-v-a-k-i-a. Czechoslovakia. Fifth grade. Boom.
Matter of fact, while Miss Keiter was imparting information that probably would have come in handy in future grades, I was doggedly learning how to spell Czechoslovakia. Then the Iron Curtain fell, Czechoslovakia broke apart and all my work was for naught. I learned my lesson, and never studied for anything ever again, but I still throw in a gratuitous Czechoslovakia whenever I get a ghost of a chance.
Anyway, by this time, the Americans had won their game against Brazil and the team members were sitting in the stands — and were more than gracious in explaining to me the nuances of the sport.
I had mistakenly assumed the target rings were something like a dart board — that you got a declining number of points for the circles furthest from the center. In fact, points are awarded for the closest stones to the center — the rings are only there for measurement, like a yardstick. Once you understand that, and feel the relief that you no longer risk clapping at the wrong things, everything falls into place.
There is skill in making the stone go where you want, but beyond that, there is a fiendish amount of chess-like cunning and strategy and “If we do this, they’ll do that, so we won’t do that, we’ll do this” involved.
What television cameras capture well is the fierce intensity and determination on the faces of the players. You might remember the woman curler in Beijing whose expression demonstrated such focus, such taut concentration, such a razor’s edge, that if you had walked up behind her and said “hi” she probably would have landed in Changchun.
What the cameras do not capture is the length of the sheet of ice, and the agonizingly long and heart stopping amount of time it takes for the rock to arrive at its destination. Sometimes, if the goal is to knock the opponent’s stone(s) asunder, they let ’er rip, but more often the stone travels at glacial speeds and you think it will never have momentum to carry it to its target, but it keeps going, and going, and going, and all the while teammates are hollering at each other to report and correct the tiniest variance with their brooms (I can now say “hard curl” in eight different languages) and I swear, the suspense almost makes your head explode.
And the skill involved is equally eye-catching. They can take a 44-pound stone and slide it down a sheet of ice nearly two and a half times longer than a bowling lane and land it in the center of the target as casually as casually as an NBA player sinks free throws.
I don’t know when’s the next chance to see world-class curling live, but the best advice is, if you don’t want to get hooked, don’t go.