Curling will never be ruined

Why one sport will forever be immune to the ugliness of modern athletics

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

It was interesting to see curling experience a boomlet in the U.K. during the Olympic tournament, at which the country was represented by two-time world champion David Murdoch and a rink of picked all-stars. The sport seems to have caught fire on the BBC, as it does occasionally in the parts of Canada in which it is still somewhat foreign. Prince Andrew, duke of York, tweeted a whimsical photo of himself pretending to curl a teakettle down a “sheet” made of photocopier paper.

The Beeb, thanks to some grouchy quotes from Team Britain’s Swedish coach, was able to create a rabble-rousing narrative, casting Canada’s Soo-based Brad Jacobs’s side as a quartet of macho mercenaries with an “aggressive” demeanour unsuited to the friendly, drunken spirit of the game. Murdoch is capable of keeping up with anybody in curling, but the bad guys won. Trailing 9-3, the Scot conceded in the eighth end of the gold-medal game, allowing Brad Jacobs to follow Jennifer Jones’s Canadian women’s gold with a men’s.

It goes to show why Britain is so often disappointed in sports. Most games we play were invented there, and the British are forced to overcome misgivings when these games mutate into professionalized spectacles. The Old Country didn’t like the way lowbrow, hustling Australians and Americans changed tennis, and its failure to adapt turned Wimbledon’s “all-England club” into foreign turf for a century. International soccer tournaments have been one long torment for the English since 1966. And wicked Canadians have confiscated the charming Scots pastime of curling, turning it into an unseemly, crude combat.

The funny thing is that curling, even with money at stake, is formidably immune to most of the ugliness that modernity imposes on sport—the frantic marketing, the soul-killing training, the illicit performance-enhancers, the odiousness of billionaire ownership. Curling is unruinable. It will never be invaded by monsters with overdeveloped right arms. It will never suffer the equivalent of a dunk contest. It will never feature a bench-clearing brawl. Cities will never throw tax dollars at unsightly mega-curling clubs crammed with gift shops and restaurants?.?.?.?probably.

That is why metropolitan hipsters are now attracted to curling as a semi-ironic amusement, enjoyed in the incomplete, detached way one consumes quinoa. Curling stones have an attractive clank of rustic authenticity. But to actual rustics like me who grew up with curling, as an Andean peasant grows up with quinoa, it is disconcerting to see an element of one’s Canadianness turned into an affectation.

We have a triad of distinctively Canadian sports: Canadian football, hockey and curling. Football, from its origins to the present, has remained a collegiate game, a game of the ruling class. College kids invented gridiron football; McGill undergrads taught Americans what a “touchdown” was. Today, football is, notoriously, the shortest path to becoming a partner in a law firm, with golf a close second. Peter Lougheed and Rob Ford were football players, rich kids who, in different ways, leveraged the social connectivity of the game.

Hockey is the most popular sport in the triad because it is the game of the Canadian middle class, a game that requires a family to have something of a surplus and, ideally, to live near a town of some size. The typical sponsor for a minor hockey team has always been some kind of small business—a plumber, a restaurant, a trucking company. There are still plenty of kids in families too broke to afford hockey. In Canada, it is the first way one might learn that one is poor.

This is where curling fits in: It is a farmer’s game, a peasant tradition. There are still many villages in the West that cannot afford hockey rinks, but that faithfully lay down two curling sheets in a long, narrow shack every fall. In those towns, an agriculture society’s community investment in two sets of stones will serve all for decades. Where hockey requires every child to have skates and pads and sticks, the traditional equipment for curling amounts to two ordinary household brooms for every four players.

Nowadays, like everything else, it’s a bit more expensive. A modern-style curling brush might run you $50. A slider for one of your shoes, $30. If you can afford those things, and you have three friends who can, you are qualified to find a zone playdown and try peeling your way to the Brier. Even the glorious “pyramid” of English soccer is not this wide open, this firmly drilled into the soil of a country. Dukes might laugh, or smile indulgently, at curling, but you’ll pardon me if I can’t join in.




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Curling will never be ruined

  1. Commentary from various non-Olympic sources in areas without much curling skin in the game question whether or not curling is actually a sport, often with a trace of a snicker in their tone. As an ice-based game of skill and strategy, I suppose it qualifies as much as, perhaps bobsledding. One could snicker that all that is required is the ability to push hard and obey the law of gravity.
    It certainly is no more boring than a soccer game or golf, requires one to be more physically active than a duplicate bridge player. But will we ever see a Briar Champion on a Wheaties box cover? I doubt it.
    Let the American PR machine get hold of it if they think they can make a buck. How long before unbalanced “crazy stones”, button buzzers and topless curling?
    On second thought, the shed in Saskatchewan seems more attractive and the Hell with what others think. It’s fun.

    • As a long time fan of curling (and occasional participant). I’m okay with calling it a game instead of a sport. I don’t know why that matters or what the distinction is, but if it lets people walk away feeling smug that they get their point across so I can continue watching, it’s a small sacrifice.

      • I like to call it all a Competition

  2. As a player and fan of football, hockey and curling I think the facts in this article have been selected to fit the thesis. Every single one of those long narrow shacks containing a curling rink has an outdoor hockey rink beside or nearby and don’t forget the countless lakes, rivers and ponds across the country where “peasants” learn to skate, shoot and score their first cup winning goals. In summer fields beside every schoolyard are used for soccer, football and baseball, whether organized or spontaneous. I know participants of each sport who come from both poverty and privilege, the only common denominators being passion and opportunity. I think curling will survive simply because it’s an interesting game that some people love. It won’t, hopefully, suffer the big money influence that the others have simply because it’s not fast or dangerous enough in this X-games world.

  3. Uhhhhh. Lacrosse?

  4. As a retired high-school curling coach, and now a part-time curling instructor, it is amazing how much of an equalizer curling is in high school gym classes. Almost every time a group of 20-25 Grade 12 students come to try out curling, it isn’t the ‘jocks’ who are the stars. The guys and girls who are the basketball and football stars struggle with their balance, while some other student who has never been the first one picked for any team, is able to slide with grace and figure out ‘draw weight’. And then when you introduce sweeping, they realize what a workout it can be. Definitely a SPORT.

  5. > the frantic marketing
    Have you seen any WCT team’s uniforms? They look like a Nascar.

    > the soul-killing training
    Ask any of the elite teams how much time they spend at home during the WCT/OCT season. Many never see a weekend at home for months on end, and blow through all of their vacation to ensure that they can compete against top-level teams. The commitment required to be a world-class curler is every bit as difficult as other sports.

    > the illicit performance-enhancers
    You have your head stuck firmly in the sand.
    http://www.sportsnet.ca/curling/canadian-curler-suspended-for-two-years/
    http://deadspin.com/5893881/what-is-going-on-with-all-the-doping-in-wheelchair-curling

    > It will never be invaded by monsters with overdeveloped right arms
    Exhibit A: Team Jacobs.

    > It will never suffer the equivalent of a dunk contest
    It’s called the Ford Hot Shots. It’s been at the Brier and Scotties since the mid-90s.

    • I think one of these points (training) isn’t completely ridiculous.

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