The 'Who'll Take First?' Olympic sport of the week: Curling

The Winter Olympics are coming up soon, and they’re hosted in Vancouver. Everybody knows what speed skating and bobsled are, so it’s my goal to teach you something about the weird sports of the Winter Olympic games. Today’s sport: curling.

Curling has been around since the 1500s, and it was played at the first Olympics in Chamonix, France, in 1924, but it resurfaced in the 1998 Nagano games. Curling is played on an ice sheet pebbled with water droplets in order to increase friction. Four players on each team alternately slide two handled rocks each from one side of the rink to the other, with the object being to put as many stones as possible on the house, the series on concentric rings starting with the center circle, the button. A cycle of all 16 rocks being thrown is called an end. Ends are like innings in baseball, and there are ten ends in a match. The last rock thrown in each end is called “the hammer,” and it switches to the team that doesn’t score in an end. In the event neither team scores, the hammer stays with the team that threw it in that end. Only one team can score in any end, and the team without the hammer can score.

To put a stone in play, a player will push off the hack (like a starting block in track) and slide with the rock to the hog line, where they must release it before the stone touches the near hog line. The player will turn their wrist clockwise or counterclockwise, which gives the rock its curl and the sport its name. The stone must travel past the far hog line and is in play until it passes the back line behind the house. Teammates with brooms sweep the pebbled ice in front of the stone in order to increase or decrease its curl and length to place it perfectly.

The first four stones of any end cannot be removed from play until they have all been thrown, normally establishing an area behind the hog line but in front of the house where stones will not count as points where they sit but serve as guard rocks for protecting later stones. This is where strategy comes into play for curling. Teams can either try to put guard rocks near the centerline or near the edges of the rink. Teams aim for two points in an end in which they have the hammer and will normally peel (knock both the thrown rock and an opponent’s rock out of play) rocks in order to get a blank end if they feel they cannot score two. They then retain the hammer and try to score two in the next end.

Scotland/Great Britain and China won the World Championships in the men’s and women’s fields, respectively, though I wouldn’t consider them favorites. The curling competition is tight, and Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the US could all medal or pull an upset. Both US teams are different from those in Torino, but one curler is constant: John Shuster. The skip for the US men’s team was the lead for Pete Fenson’s team in 2006. The team of Debbie McCormick has replaced the Johnson sisters for the US women.

I expect the Canadians to perform very well on home ice, and Scandinavia always has good showings at the Olympics in Curling. The Swiss are consistently at the top of the medal podium, so it will be tough again for the United States to make a strong showing, but I think the men’s team has a better chance at medaling.

I hope you now know something about curling, both the sport in general and the favorites for a medal. Both US teams play on Feb. 16, the men at noon on USA and the women at 5 on CNBC. The women’s medal games are Friday, Feb. 26 at noon (Bronze) on USA and 6 (Gold) on CNBC. The men’s bronze game is on Saturday, Feb. 27 at noon on USA and the gold medal game is the same day at 6 on CNBC. Other games are scheduled throughout and curling is one of the most broadcast sports, so do check it out.

As a final note, I was going to continue my weird sports with skeleton next week, but as far as I can see, skeleton isn’t specifically televised. But, if you want to see it as part of a larger segment at midnight or later, watch NBC on Friday, Feb. 19, and Saturday, Feb. 20. In place of that, I’m finishing up my weird sports previews with sports in which Americans have a chance of medaling.