The Winter Olympics are here, and that can only mean one thing: for the next few weeks, people who don’t like to do housework and can’t really tolerate the cold will become unnaturally interested in a sport which involves sweeping while standing on ice. Curling is back, and all is right with the world.
So, let’s fix that. Here’s everything you need to know to be the curling expert in your school, at work or at your next dinner party.
(Before we get there, though: If you’ve never seen a curling match, here are four-plus minutes of highlights from the finals of the men’s competition at the 2010 Olympics.)
The game features two teams of four people each, armed with brooms, shoes with gliding soles, and special granite stones which themselves have handles. The teams take to a narrow ice rink called a “sheet,” and each takes a turn launching a stone toward a target, called the “house.” The other three teammates take their brooms and furiously sweep away, hoping to make the stone do their bidding. After each team has alternated launching their eight stones (two per curler), that part of the match — called an “end” — ends. Whichever team has a stone closer to the center of the house, called the “button,” scores points during that “end,” and gets one point per stone closer to the button than the opponent’s closest stone (so long as the stones are in the house).
The brooms? There’s a bit of debate around what’s going on there. In 2010, a physicist at the University of Northern British Columbia named Mark Shegelski spoke with Scientific American about the popular theories around the issue. He noted that most everyone agrees that, by sweeping in front of the stone, the broomsmen and broomswomen are reducing the friction between the stone and the ice surface, allowing the stone to move forward more quickly than it would otherwise. The issue, though, is why this happens. Most likely, sweepers aren’t knocking pebbles loose, clearing the way for the stone to enter the house. Rather, they’re warming the ice sheet up and, in the process, creating a thin liquid-ish layer between the stone’s contact ring and the surface, thereby allowing it to maintain more momentum. The sweepers, Shegelski believes, aren’t cleaning the ice — they’re melting it. But not everything involving curling can be easily explained. Take, for example, the Russian team’s pants for the current Games — they’re well beyond explanation.
By the way: there have been eight curling events at the Olympics — four men’s, four women’s — since the sport joined the ranks of official competitions in 1998. (A mixed doubles event was considered for the 2010 Games but ultimately rejected.) Canada has taken a medal in all eight competitions — three golds, three silvers, and two bronzes.