7 Facts And 3 GIFs: Hellooo Curling

Jan 23, 2014
Originally published on January 24, 2014 1:39 pm

Most of the sports in the Winter Olympics involve great physical strength or agility. The goals are easy to understand: to go faster, to jump farther or more spectacularly. But one Olympic sport — curling — is as much about strategy and physics as physicality.

Curling is some combination of bowling, bocce ball, billiards and chess — all on ice. Oh, and there's sweeping involved, too, so throw some basic housekeeping into that mix. It's one of those sports people love to mock for not really being a sport. But don't tell that to Kevin White, an instructor at the Potomac Curling Club in a Washington, D.C., suburb where about a dozen newbies like me gathered on a recent weekend for a lesson.

Here are some things I learned:

1. The ice isn't smooth, and the stones are quite specialized.

"It has a textured surface," White says about the ice, "and what we do is we spray water droplets on here to give it what we call a pebbled surface."

The pebbled surface helps the stones move on the ice. The stones are smooth and round, and squat like Saturn peaches, with handles on the top.

They're also quite specialized, according to instructor Joe Rockenbach: "The rocks are made of granite — a specific type of granite from Scotland. They weigh between 38 and 44 pounds."

2. The idea is to push the stone from one end of the ice to the other, aiming for the center of the "house," which looks like a bull's-eye.

"What do you think we call that? The button," says White. "Ever heard the term 'right on the button?' "

But getting the stone right on the button? That's harder than it looks.

3. This is how the curlers start:

Launching the stone involves getting into a low lunge position, pushing off with one foot, sliding on the other, and then when the athlete's body is moving along the ice at the perfect speed, releasing the stone with just the right amount of spin.

When done right, it works like a curveball, and the stone curls to the spot the curler is aiming for.

4. Unlike, say, bowling, the fun doesn't stop when the big heavy thing is launched down the ice. That's when the other members of the team start sweeping.

"This is where the 'it feels like a sport' part comes in, and trust me it does," Rockenbach says.

5. A broom is used for sweeping, though it actually looks more like a spongy mop. Sweepers go out ahead of the stone, melting the ice ever so slightly with the friction of the sweeping.

Rockenbach says the top-level sweepers can burn 500 calories an hour: "Sweeping accomplishes a couple of things. It can make the rock go farther; it can straighten out the path that the rock is traveling; it can burn calories; it can make you warm."

6. Strategy matters as much as sweeping.

Each round is called an end (yes, this sport has a language all its own.) Each team has four players, and each player throws two stones. The team with the rock closest to the center of the button after all those throws wins the end. Knocking the opposing team's stone out of the house or blocking its path are key parts of the game. This involves intense strategy sessions — and this is where curling really turns into chess on ice.

How many points the winner gets depends on how many stones the winning team has closer to the center than their opponents' nearest stone.

7. After eight (recreation) or 10 (Olympics) ends, the game is over, but the players aren't done.

"The most important rule in curling is the winning team buys the first round after the game is over," says Rockenbach.

The post-game hangout is called "broomstacking," and it's actually really bad form if a player doesn't do it.

That's even true sometimes at the Olympics — which brings us back to that whole argument about whether curling really, truly is a sport.

You can follow NPR's coverage of the Sochi Olympics at our new blog, The Edge.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right, most of the sports in the upcoming winter Olympics involve great physical strength or agility. The goals are easy to understand: go faster, jump farther or more spectacularly than your competition. But one Olympic sport is as much about strategy and physics as physicality: curling. To give you an edge when watching this sport, NPR's Tamara Keith spent some time learning how to curl.

(SOUNDBITE OF STONE ROLLING OVER ICE)

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Curling is some combination of bowling, bocce ball, billiards and chess, all on ice. Oh, and there's sweeping involved, too, so throw some basic housekeeping into that mix. It's one of those sports people love to mock for not really being a sport. But don't tell that to Kevin White.

KEVIN WHITE: Well, I curled last Friday, twice on Saturday, once on Sunday, once on Tuesday, once on Thursday, once on Friday and then today.

KEITH: White is an instructor at the Potomac Curling Club in a Washington, D.C., suburb, where about a dozen newbies like me gathered for a lesson. We put rubber grippers over our sneakers.

WHITE: Come on down on the ice.

KEITH: White senses the group's nervousness.

WHITE: Please. And you'll notice that it's not real smooth, like you might expect. It has a textured surface. What we do is we spray water droplets on here to give it what we call a pebbled surface.

KEITH: And that helps the stone move on the ice, a stone which instructor Joe Rockenbach says is quite specialized.

JOE ROCKENBACH: The rocks are made of granite, a specific type of granite from Scotland. They weigh between 38 and 44 pounds.

KEITH: They are smooth and round and squat like a Saturn peach, with a handle on the top. And White says the idea is to push the stone from one end of the ice to the other, aiming for the center of a bull's-eye-looking thing called the house.

WHITE: What do you think we call that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The bull's-eye.

WHITE: The button. Anybody heard the term right on the button?

KEITH: But getting the stone right on the button? That's harder than it looks.

WHITE: First thing is we're just going to press forward and slide everything forward.

KEITH: Launching the stone involves getting into a low lunge position, pushing off with one foot, sliding on the other, and then when your body is moving along the ice at the perfect speed, releasing the stone with just the right amount of spin. When done right, it works like a curveball, and the stone curls to the spot you're aiming for.

(SOUNDBITE OF STONE SLIDING OVER ICE)

KEITH: Oh.

WHITE: You started to lean forward. That's the thing.

KEITH: (unintelligible) come off.

WHITE: That's OK.

KEITH: The stones I threw, not so much. But unlike bowling, say, the fun doesn't stop when the big heavy thing is launched down the ice. That's, says Rockenbach, is when it's time for other members of the team to start sweeping.

ROCKENBACH: This is where the it-feels-like-a-sport part comes in. And trust me, it does.

KEITH: A broom is used for sweeping, though it actually looks more like a spongy mop. Sweepers go out ahead of the stone, melting the ice ever so slightly with the friction of the sweeping.

ROCKENBACH: Sweeping accomplishes a couple of things. It can make the rock go further. It can straighten out the path that the rock's traveling. It can burn calories. It can make you warm.

KEITH: Rockenbach says the top-level sweepers can burn 500 calories an hour.

ROCKENBACH: And we're just going to go back and forth in front of the rock, back and forth in front of the rock.

KEITH: Each round is called an end - yes, this sport has a language all its own. Each team has four players, and each player throws out two stones.

(SOUNDBITE OF STONE SLIDING OVER ICE)

KEITH: As the stone rolls down the ice, it sounds like an airplane overhead. Then add to the cacophony the squeaky squeak of sweeping.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KEITH: The team with the rock closest to the center of the button after all those throws wins the end. And knocking your opponent's stone out of the house...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

KEITH: ...or blocking their path in are key parts of the game. How many points the winner gets depends on how many stones the winning team has closer to the center than their opponents' nearest stone. After eight or 10 ends, the game is over, but Rockenbach says the players are not done.

ROCKENBACH: The most important rule in curling is the winning team buys the first round after the game is over.

KEITH: Even sometimes at the Olympics, which brings us back to that whole argument about whether curling really, truly is a sport. All I'll say is that the next morning, my arms were sore from all that intense sweeping. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

INSKEEP: She is NPR's curling correspondent, and we have put together an animated guide to curling. See that at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.