Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Made in Scotland — curling

It's an ancient sport, invented in Scotland and then exported around the world. You peer at a small circle in the distance, contort your body for a smooth delivery and goose the trajectory with a little spin. It looks deceptively simple, but an inch to the wrong side can bring disaster. If you do it right, a small crowd politely applauds. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, a player who violates the rules is expected to call the infraction on himself. After the game, it's tradition to go have a drink with your competitors.

No, not golf. That's the other sport Scotland invented.

We're talking about curling.

My curling instructor demonstrates for me at a free "Try Curling" session in Glasgow.
First played by tossing smooth rocks on frozen ponds and lakes, the game of curling is at least 500 years old. A curling stone dated "Stirling, 1511," and another dated 1551, were discovered in a pond in Dunblane, Scotland, though there are serious doubts about the authenticity of the writing on the stones. Regardless, in 1541, a Scottish notary described (in medieval Latin) a curling contest between a monk in Paisley Abbey and the abbot's representative. With plenty of cold winters supplied by the Little Ice Age (mid-1500s to mid-1800s), curling became a popular Scottish sport. The first use of the term "curling" appeared in a poem in 1620.

As the centuries passed, players used curling stones of whatever shape and size they desired, ranging from small handheld rocks which were thrown part of the way to nearly immobile stones of 115 pounds. Some players favored rounded rocks, others squarish.

The niches were for fingers and thumb. (Photo courtesy of collectionscanada.gc.ca.)
In the 1700s, handles were added to give more control for rotating (i.e., "curling") the stone, which helped players arc and bend the trajectory of stones for better placement. Nowadays, curling stones are set between 38 and 44 pounds (usually 42), with a maximum circumference of 36 inches. They're all granite and come from one of two places: either a granite quarry in Wales, or an island off the southwestern coast of Scotland, called Ailsa Craig. Somewhere between 60 and 70% of all the stones worldwide come from Ailsa Craig, including those for almost all major competitions, including the Olympics.

Ailsa Craig stones used in Scotland.
The stones are slightly concave underneath for easier sliding.
The founding of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in Edinburgh in 1838 led eventually to standardization of rules and equipment. After seeing a demonstration of curling on a ballroom floor in Scotland, Queen Victoria gave permission in 1843 for the club to be renamed the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. The Royal Caledonian became the mother club and the worldwide governing body for the sport until 1966, when it helped establish the International Curling Federation.

Given the untamed conditions of playing on ponds and lakes, the sport of curling involved a significant degree of luck. With the advent of indoor ice rinks in the 20th century, however, the ice is smooth and uniform throughout greatly reducing luck and upping the ante on skill. Serious curling inevitably moved from outdoors to indoors, and in the process lost a bit of its scenic and communitarian aspects.

A Glasgow ice rink dedicated to curling. Note that eight games can be played concurrently.
Back in ye olden days, curling was a manly and tough sport for outdoorsmen. Weak and timid folks huddle inside from the cold, while "curlers are sportive, and youthful our air." The fourth verse of a late 18th century song, the "Curlers March," proclaims:


Various dates given for first publication, but definitely by 1792.
Then sally out boldly, and form round our ring,
Like waters in frost we together will cling,
To corn bat proud Boreas,
Or who else may shore us,
Until we shall meet the return of the spring.
Now mark the dread sound as our columns move on
So solemn, so awful, so martial's the tone
The clouds resound afar whilst the waters groan!
Stable rock
Feels our shock
As if stern Mars in transport spoke
Such the thunder and crash of the curling-stone!

As is the tradition of so many things in Scotland, you conclude "gleefully we drink to all curlers keen!"

Modern curling is played on a "curling sheet" measuring 146 to 150 feet long and 14.5 to 16.5 feet wide. Its rules are similar to lawn bowling. Each team has four players. Both teams get eight stones per round, called an "end," for a total of sixteen stones. The teams alternate sliding, or "throwing," a stone to the other end of the ice.

The goal is to get the stone as close as possible to the center (the "button") of the concentric circles (the "house") at the other end. Whichever team gets its stone(s) closest to the button gets a point, or points. Teams can knock the other team's stones away, or shield their own stone, or try to place a stone to block or obstruct a throw by the other team.

Kate prepares to deliver a stone. You push off from a "hack" to slide forward with the stone, aiming for the button on the far end of the curling sheet.
The concentric circles don't serve to increase scoring, though a stone must at least touch the outer ring to be counted. The circles serve only as a visual aid for aiming at the "button." Without the circles, you can imagine the need for a person to mark a place or hold a pin as a target, like a flag in the cup for golf.

In major competitions, teams play ten "ends;" at recreational levels, teams often play only eight ends. The goal isn't to win the most ends, but to score the most points over the game. In practice, the losing team frequently concedes before all the ends are played because of the impossibility or extreme unlikelihood of securing enough points in the final end or ends.

Some stones are thrown straight ahead, but the trajectory of many stones is purposefully arced or bent. The thrower can spin the handle clockwise or counterclockwise, at various speeds, to arc the shot. Meanwhile, two teammates can use a "broom" or "brush" to sweep the ice in front of the stone, making the ice wet and slippery, thereby helping to speed up or guide the trajectory. The brooms originally were made from corn stalks, but now are typically fabric, horsehair, or hog hair.

While simple in concept, curling is quite complex in strategy and skill. The various rules and strategies are beyond the scope of this blog post, but you can get the idea from terms such as guards, draws, take outs, hammers, free guard zone, peeling, and so on. The team captain, called the "skip," directs where each shot should go. Teams sometimes opt not to score points in an end so as to retain the "hammer" (i.e., the last stone thrown in an end) for the next end. Aggressive or defensive strategies might suit various teams' skills, but a single mistake can force a team to pursue an entirely new strategy mid-game or even mid-end.

Although it may not come across as exciting to a casual viewer, the more you know about the rules and strategies the more exciting it becomes. Suspense can build over the course of an end, or toward the finish of the game. The throw of a "hammer" can be as tense as a last-second field goal in American football, but the shot lasts much longer and consequently feels more excruciating.

That said, curling is nonetheless a niche sport in Scotland, as in the rest of the world. Schoolchildren might get a chance to try curling in gym class, and youth clubs are available, but participation is nowhere near football, rugby, cricket, etc. After exposure in the Olympics, folks (like me) get curious about curling and try out free curling classes to get a taste.

A recent "Try Curling" session in Glasgow.
The current powerhouse of curling is Canada, though Sweden is also excellent. Scotland is periodically very good. The U.K.'s men's and women's Olympic teams are comprised entirely of Scots, and won silver and bronze this year, respectively. Outside the Olympics, the Scottish women won last year's world championship. 

Kate and I quite enjoyed our hour-long "Try Curling" session a couple of weeks ago. With a babysitter to look after Jackson, we headed to an upscale mall in Glasgow (Braehead) that holds one of the best curling facilities in Scotland. In the months before the 2014 Winter Olympics, it hosted several of the world's best teams for a competition, and I'm told it's the usual base for Scotland's women's team.

Entry to the rink.
The necessary bar for post-curling libations.
We had two instructors for eight people. We learned the basics of throwing stones, from how to approach the "hack" to how to stay balanced while throwing. We all took turns sweeping, an extremely vigorous cardio workout. (The top curling players spend half their year in weight and cardio training.) Kate had good form for a beginner. My form was mediocre, but my claim to fame is actually throwing a stone into the "house" without assistance or a nudge from the instructors a rare feat for a beginner {Ed.'s note: we'll let you decide how much was luck and how much was skill}.

Instead of a broom for balance, you start with a training bar. Your weight should be balanced on the foot opposite your throwing hand.
Kate looked like she was a natural.

Approaching the "hack" as instructed, feet braced to avoid slipping.
After the "Try Curling" session was over, I asked the instructor if I could try using a brush for balance instead of the training bar.

Lookin' good before the delivery.
A good push here (but note how my brush has come much too far in front of me) . . . followed by falling over after releasing the stone.
After our session, Kate and I both thought we'd enjoy doing some more. There are beginner classes on weekend mornings, as well as some evenings during the week. The practicalities of getting a babysitter every week, however, are hard to surmount not to mention that if we're going to get a regular babysitter, we'd likely prioritize other things (sightseeing, going to a movie, pub trivia, etc.) over curling. As it was, we combined our "Try Curling" expedition with seeing a movie.

But if the logistics were right, we'd definitely be willing. Anyone want to provide free babysitting on Saturday or Sunday mornings?


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