As the world’s eyes turn to Sochi, the inevitable questions about curling loom over my head like a FAQ which no one has read in a decade. “Why do they sweep the ice?” “Is beer considered a performance enhancing drug?” “With the proliferation of HDTV, do curlers use concealer on their bald spots?”
1. For the same reason you wear clean underpants in case of a car accident.
2. It’s called aiming juice for a reason.
3. Yes, but they won’t admit to it.
Hopefully the next thousand words will help to demystify some of the strangest parts of the Olympics’ kitschiest sport (next to the Summer Games Team Handball, which is dominated by an Icelander for crying out loud) and help to keep your yap closed while I’m watching Olympic curling after my ninth beer and second DiGiorno pizza.
The genesis of most Olympic sports goes something like this: “Hey Sven! Grab my skis and rifle! All this beer has given me an idea for a new sport!”
Curling is no exception. Just look at its bizarre language, penchant for socially enforced post-game beer socializing and Norwegian epilepsy pants. Its origins as an organized sport go back many centuries. There are paintings from the 1500’s illustrating curling and the first written reference appears as early as the 1540’s. This makes curling the second longest running team sport next to War (see the biathlon referenced in the opening sentence), but unlike your local junta, it took until the 1960’s to form an international federation to govern curling’s rules.
The game has been described as bowling on ice with a significantly higher risk of concussion. It’s also been described as chess on ice, which is a fitting description as people are always toppling over from beer and/or slipperiness, but not so nearly a perfect description once horses were banned from competitions back in 1867. However, curling is not just a silly game of shuffleboard on ice played by a handful of grandmas who couldn’t afford to leave Duluth to retire in Ft. Meyers.
Curling is sexy.
Unlike the beer swilling portly gentlemen I throw rocks with at my local curling club, on the international stage there are curlers like Cheryl Bernard and Eve Muirhead whose images will be transmitted to your 70’ HDTV, screaming “HURRY! HARD! HURRY HARD!” while staring at you directly in the eyes. If that doesn’t get your blood boiling, regardless of gender or sexual preference, then you probably need to start a Tumblr.
Who’s Who on the Team
The Skip calls the shots during a match and throws the last two rocks for the team. They need to have the calm and short memory of a closer in baseball, but must also have an affinity for yelling at people non-stop for two-and-a-half hours at a time.
The Vice Skip throws third in curling and calls shots when the skip throws. They are more influential than Dan Quayle, but don’t get to pull the strings like Dick Cheney.
The Second sweeps a lot, but doesn’t do anything too exciting except being the first one to get you a beer and a shot when you ask. They are lovely people. Just imagine asking Richard Sherman during the middle of the game for a beer: “SUMMIT EPA? THAT’S MEDIOCRE! SO IS THE GREAT LAKES BREWING COMPANY’S DORTMUNDER GOLD. MEDIOCRE! MOLSEN CANADIAN IS A CHAMPION’S BEER. YOU ARE SO MUCH BETTER THAN THOSE REGIONAL BEERS!” I’ll take a second as my bartender any day of the week.
The Lead throws the first two rocks of an end and is the emperor of the Free Guard Zone (more on that later). The Lead is the poor schmuck who has to sweep continuously for most of the game. At the Frogtown Curling Club in Saint Paul, the lead generally starts out a game in a t-shirt, thermal shirt, sweatshirt, winter hat and track pants and by the sixth end is wearing only a Speedo and knee-high wool socks.
Curling, like all sports dominated by Canadians, has a unique lexicon all its own. The bullseye at each end of the rink is called the “House,” the center circle in the middle of the house is the “Button,” you push off from the”Hack” when you throw the rock, and the “Hog Line” is the furthest point where you can release the rock. Finally, the “Hammer” is the last rock thrown in an end (and not what some super-buff Avenger uses to pretend the CGI in a move is well crafted.)
(Author’s Note: None of this unintelligible Scottish-influenced Canadian lingo is as exciting as the time I heard NHL commentator Darren Pang squeal, “Ohhhh, he hit ‘em in the toque with his waffle,” which sounded less like a hockey fight and more like brunch with the Real Housewives of Mississauga.)
You wouldn’t know it from watching on TV, but there are little bumps on the curling sheet called pebbles and before the game they spray the ice with droplets of water because nothing says more fun on the ice like MORE ICE. A blade is then run over the ice to even out the pebbles. This process is called nipping and should not be confused with the act of sipping peppermint schnapps with a splash of coffee. Once the rock is thrown, the friction of the broom head melts the ice and allows the skip to control direction and movement of the shot. More sweeping and the rock will go further and straighter, less sweeping and the rock will curl more but not travel as far.
Also, many professional curlers find sweeping frustrating because their spouses are always asking them to bring work home with them.
Much like offsides in soccer, baseball’s infield fly rule and every single freakin’ penalty called in football, curling has its own odd rule that new spectators struggle to understand. The “Free Guard Rule” allows the Leads’ rocks to be thrown short of the house, but beyond the hog line and these rocks cannot be knocked out of play until the Second throws. If a rock in the free guard zone is struck and knocked out, it is put back where it was and the striking rock is removed from play. If the rock is struck but remains in play, nothing happens. So basically, it’s just like every beverage within a six foot radius when I’m telling a story at the bar. However, if a Lead’s rock is thrown into the house, then it can be knocked out of play, which was the activity instigating the Free Guard Rule in the first place. It’s clear as mud, or at least the humid swamp biozone created during a curling matching when it’s 40 degrees outside.
An end is basically an “inning” (for us Americans) in curling. For professionals there are 10 ends in a game and for the rest of us anywhere from 6-8 depending on how much we’ve had to drink and/or how much socializing goes on in a game. It also signifies the completion point of the article because it is the internet and I’m already over 1200 words. If after a few bong hits, some tacos, and like six hours of watching Olympic curling on basic cable, you decide you want to give curling a try, please do. You don’t need to buy anything in advance and most likely your local club will be having an open house during Sochi just to suck you in. Look ‘em up because we all know the Internet is only good for cat pictures and photos of the Norwegian Men’s Curling Pants. Go for it, but don’t bring a six pack of bad beer, because everyone will politely judge you for it.