Icebreaker: Why curlers use brooms, why so much yelling and who’s favored to win?

Tabitha Peterson competes at the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling.
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Curling gets its moment in the spotlight every four years and this February will be no exception when the sport kicks off on Wednesday in Beijing.

It’s at about this time that you’ll find a fresh batch of articles regaling curling’s charms, detailing how the alien sport captivates fans around the world with its seemingly cheeky jargon, its mystical only-from-Scotland stones and its steadfast sportsmanship.

But here’s the catch: It’s all true! And the answers to some of curling’s most obvious questions bear repeating.

Olympic curling features three events: men’s, women’s, and mixed doubles.

The American women, boasting most of their athletes from 2018, are aiming to win an Olympic medal for the first time and will look to capitalize on momentum from winning bronze at the 2021 World Women’s Curling Championship.

Which women’s team is favored to win curling gold? 

The Canadian women have traditionally been a powerhouse, winning gold in 1998 and 2014, silver in 2010, bronze in 2002 and 2006, and with Canada’s mixed doubles team winning gold in 2018. This year’s squad is led by 2014 Olympic champ Jennifer Jones, who’s also won two world titles and two Canadian Olympic Trials gold medals. they’ve got something to prove after leaving the Games empty handed for the first time since the sport returned to the Olympic program in 2018.

Sweden, No. 1 in the world rankings, rivals Canada with five Olympic medals of its own. But the Swedish women boast three gold (2006, ’10, ’18), one silver (2014) and one bronze (1998), as well as not-so-secret weapon Anna Hasselborg, who returns to lead the defending champions. The Swedes are out for redemption after finishing fourth at last year’s worlds and second the European Championships.

Great Britain’s Eve Muirhead will make her third Olympic appearance and will lead the reigning European champions, while Team USA features 2018 veterans Tabitha Peterson (skip) and Nina Roth (third) – who happens to be one of two moms on the entire 2022 U.S. Olympic team. Peterson and Roth, along with second Becca Hamilton and lead Tara Peterson (also Tabitha’s sister) captured bronze at the 2021 worlds, marking the first worlds medal for U.S. women in 15 years.

The women’s Olympic tournament features 10 teams playing a round robin format, with the top four teams advancing to the semifinals. The winners of each semifinal will meet in the gold-medal match, while the losers will play for bronze.

What is curling and when did it become an Olympic sport?

Often referred to as “chess on ice,” curling mixes elements of the venerable board game with a dash of shuffleboard and hockey. Its origins date back to 16th-century Scotland, where the sport was played on frozen lakes and ponds with players sliding stones on a sheet of ice toward a target area. The term “curling” describes the motion of the stone, as a player can affect a stone’s path by causing it to slowly turn – or curl – as it slides.

While men’s curling was included in the inaugural Winter Olympic in 1924 in Chamonix, there was a lengthy absence over the next 60-plus years when it appeared just three times as a demonstration sport (1932, ’88, ’92). Curling was officially added back to the Olympic program in 1998 in Nagano and featured men’s and women’s team competitions, with mixed doubles tournament added in 2018.

Why do curlers yell? 

Curling prides itself on a code of conduct, referred to by the World Curling Federation as the “Spirit of Curling.”

“Curlers play to win, but never to humble their opponents,” states the federation website. “A true curler never attempts to distract opponents, nor to prevent them from playing their best.”

So, why all the shouting?

Don’t confuse it with trash talk. With the “sheet” – i.e., playing area – measuring up to 150 feet long, yelling is the best way for the skip (team captain) to communicate how the sweepers should work to move the stone down the ice as they take each shot. Some of the most common commands heard are “hurry,” which means to sweep as fast as possible; “whoa,” which means to stop sweeping; and “yup,” which means to sweep.

Why do curlers use brooms?

Brooms are used for several reasons including balance and aim, but just as it appears, players use brushes to sweep the ice in front of the stone to help it travel farther and straighter. Sweeping not only clears the ice of debris that might slow down the stone or send it off-course, but also it melts a thin layer of ice that reduces friction and increases distance.

The ice isn’t smooth, either. Unlike skating sports, the curling sheet has little bumps called “pebbled” ice, which is made by spraying tiny droplets of water that freeze on the surface. Pebbled ice helps players control the spin, as the curl would be too severe on smooth ice.

Do Olympic curling stones really come from only one place?

Yes! All Olympic curling stones are made from granite that comes from a small island off Scotland’s Ayrshire Coast called Ailsa Craig. Ailsa Craig granite is known for its resistance to cracking and condensation, as well as its ability to maintain shape despite the wet and changing conditions on the ice.

The stones, also called rocks, are made of two different types of granite found on the 220-acre island: blue hone granite, which makes up the layer of the stone that glides on the ice, and common green granite, which is used for the middle layer that strikes other stones. The stones are polished and weigh between 38 and 44 pounds on average, with a maximum circumference of 36 inches and at least 4.5 inches high.

How do you win?

Despite some unfamiliar terms, curling is relatively easy to follow: In the men’s and women’s tournaments, two teams of four players compete in a match that consists of 10 “ends,” which are equivalent to innings in baseball. Players on each team alternate throwing stones, with the “lead” throwing first, followed by the “second,” then the “third” – also known as the vice-skip – and finally, the “skip,” who not only throws the last stone but also directs team strategy.

Each player throws two stones per end for a total of 16 stones. The target? The “house” – the scoring area at the far side of the sheet that’s marked with four concentric circles that loosely resemble an archery target. The house’s bullseye is called the “button,” and the team with the most stones closest to the button upon completion of an end is awarded points.

While only one team can score during an end, the team that fails to score gets the “hammer” – the advantage of throwing the last stone in the next end. The team with the most points after 10 ends – approximately three hours later – wins the match.

What’s different about mixed doubles curling?

While mixed doubles curling using the same sheet and scoring as the team event, just two players (one man, one woman) compete rather than four. The game is shorter, too, with five stones per end, and eight ends per game. One player delivers the rock on the first and last throw of each end, and the other delivers the second, third and fourth rocks. Players can change their order throughout the game.

Additionally, each end starts with both teams placing one rock in play, either in the house or as a guard. Each team also has one power play per game, offering more options for placement of the first stone.

Canada arrives to the 10-team event as the reigning gold medalists, but only John Morris returns to the mixed doubles team as 2018 partner Kaitlyn Lawes is competing in the women’s tournament and thus ineligible to compete in both under Canada’s criteria. He’ll partner with 2018 women’s skip Rachel Homan. Great Britain’s Jennifer Dodds and Bruce Mouat are the reigning world champions, while Switzerland’s 2018 silver medalists Jenny Perret and Martin Rios are set for their second Olympic appearance. Reigning worlds bronze medalists Almida de Val and Oskar Eriksson look to win Sweden’s first medal in the discipline, and American Chris Plys will pull double duty in Beijing with Vicky Persinger in mixed double and as a member of the U.S. men’s team.

The NBC Olympics Research team contributed to this report.

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