Americans just don’t “get” curling. It may come as a surprise to many Americans watching the Olympics that people actually cheer during curling matches. In fact, it may come as a surprise to some that curling involves spectators at all and that it’s actually a sport and not simply some very bizarre cult gathering that just so happens to take place concurrently with the Olympics.
Curling is, indeed, a sport. It is played in more than 45 countries including the United Kingdom, Sweden (defending the women’s Olympic gold medal), Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Canada and, yes, even the United States, according to the World Curling Federation. In Canada, it’s more than a sport — it’s an obsession. Canada is currently defending the men’s Olympic gold medal.
If you’ve ever played bocce or pétanque, curling is similar to those games, only on ice. The team captain, called the skip, sends a 16-pound, rounded granite slab — called a rock or a stone interchangeably — down a subtly stippled sheet of ice. His or her teammates — collectively referred to as the rink — rush to the side of the stone with sophisticated brooms and brush its path furiously toward the stone’s eventual resting place, a red and blue target called the house.
The game begins slowly and methodically, as each team waits for its turn to throw the stone. This is one reason curling has never caught on in the U.S.: Americans hate waiting in lines, and curling is nothing if not a line — a drawn-out exercise in contemplative patience. The vigorous brushing motions of the brooms wielded by the curlers are perhaps the most exciting parts of a game, so it’s no wonder Americans don’t find it particularly interesting. Curling is reminiscent of cleaning, and Americans hate cleaning; we would much prefer to expand or redo or forget our messes rather than clean up after them. This very American sentiment is antithetical to the ethos of curling, a game in which every decision you make will affect you again.
After the first few turns, the game becomes as much about strategy as it is about sportsmanship. The court is littered with the remnants of former turns. It becomes like a game of chess, all about outmaneuvering your opponent, not overpowering them. Curling is all about nuance , and Americans don’t want nuance in their sports, especially in the age of instant replay.
Americans are all about “rugged individualism.” We excel at individual sports like track and field, snowboarding and skiing. Our Olympic teams that are composed of recognizable figures always seem to emphasize choosing the best players from any sport without any regard to their ability to function as a team. Curling requires this strange yet amazing cooperation that borders on mind reading, because the rink must listen to the skip and understand his desires to utilize their own abilities as a group to guide the stone to the house successfully.
Curling is admittedly a bit odd, but it is also an incredibly interesting and even beautiful sport. The American curling team acknowledges the lack of understanding in the U.S. — the team sponsored a buzz-building contest that offered to send one person to Vancouver this year. Maybe we could do them a favor and watch the 2010 Olympic curling matches with more than blank, confused expressions on our faces.