Thursday, February 18, 2010

O curlers, come, we're brithers a' (and good luck to you)

Every four winters, the population of the world with televisions gets the notion that it can compete in the Olympics.  Very few think, "Hey, I can just sit on those big fat skis, slide down that 300' foot jump, stand up at the end, and get a gold medal.  Even fewer - especially this year - think to themselves, "I can ride a sled! I'll just lie down on that thing and slide to victory, nothing to it..."

But, every four years people sitting in their living rooms, eating pretzels and drinking beer, think, "Hey, that curling is silly, it's shuffleboard on ice, any idiot can do that.  Heck, I am going to the Olympics and do some curling..."

Every four years, Curling Clubs across the US brace themselves for the inevitable post-olympic rush.  They happily host open houses, offer beginner classes, reach out to the press, etc.  Yesterday, the local TV station here in Boston ran some footage they took at Broomstones showing the kids shooting and sweeping.  Easy right?

The game is ancient - invented in 1400s - anything that people have been doing that long deserves a little respect, don't you think? It's also freaking hard. Try threading a needle 150' away, standing on ice, in shoes with teflon soles. Like golf, anyone can have fun with 10 minutes of instruction, but it takes 10 years of training and practice to be any good.

Four years ago, Michael Graham - local radio 'personality' started in on his show about how dumb curling is, how anyone can do, how it's the only Olympic event with a smoking room for the contestants, etc...and I called him on it.  Bet him $100 to his charity of choice that he couldn't make a shot.  To his credit, he showed up, tried it, and did in fact fall on his butt.  He paid up, too.  I hope this year he remembers the experience and gives curling its due.

A friend emailed yesterday to say he was bored to tears watching Olympic curling on TV. He's not alone. It takes 2.5 hours to play a 10 end game - that's 160 individual shots. Compared to watching Shaun White Mcflip wheelies for 20 seconds? Hey, its dull.  But here's the thing - watching an amazing curling shot is a near religious experience for curling fans. True afficiandos hold their breath, moan, scream, twist their bodies, pull their hair - hmmm...sounds more ribald than religious, but you get the point. To curlers - a great shot is a beautious thing...worth wading through 159 other shots to experience.

If you do find yourself watching some matches this week or next, here's a quick primer to help make it more interesting. 

1) Curling has nothing to do with shuffleboard - if there is a comparison, it's to chess.  Curling is a mental game.  The challenge being that it takes four 'mentals' - the brains and brawn of all four team members working together - to make each move.  The goal is for your rocks to be closer to the center of the house (the button) than your opponent at the end of 'end'.  You get one point for each rock in the rings that is closer than your opponents closest stone (watch a couple of ends, you'll figure it out). 
2) Each player throws two rocks per end. 
3) The skip calls the shots - indicating to the shooters where to put their rock by holding a broom (the stick with a pad on the end) as a target.
4) Three out of the 4 players sweep when they aren't shooting (skips generally don't sweep).  Sweeping keeps the rock straighter (not letting it curl as much) and makes it run further (not faster).
5) Strategies run from keeping a clean house (that target looking set of rings painted in the ice at the other end) by knocking out every rock in sight, to cluttering up the front of the house with guards and eventually drawing in behind.
6) Every shot counts, but usually (like basketball) the last few minutes of each end are the most exciting/interesting as the skips jockey for final position.  This is where you see some amazing shotmaking.  Watch for double/triple takeouts, come-arounds where the rock sneaks by a front guard and curls behind, and crazy angle-bank-raise 'circus' shots that look amazing and are just impossibly difficult.

Oh...and the cowbell thing?'s really more of a Canadian affectation. Don't show up at your local curling club clanging one - pretty much paints 'rube' across your forehead. 

And remember, winners buy the first round.

Here's to the sport of fair renown,
Here's to the roarin' game;
Here's to the stones that go gliding down,
Here's to the icy lane:

Here's to the skip with shout so bold,
Here's to his players' fling,
Here's to the game that is never old,
Here's to the songs we sing.

Come join the curling game;
Our eyes are keen, our arms are true,
Our courage is aflame;

In winter air, and sport so rare,
The stones our weapons be,
We'll make the fight with honest might,
To gain the victory:

A man who is a curling man,
No better man than he.

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