Illustration by Jeffrey Dowdy.
With the start of the Sochi Olympics, the entire world is once again happily contracting curling fever. But this oddest and most Canadian of sports is not just a Winter Olympics thing, although it is definitely the weirdest and best Winter Olympics thing. In hopes of enhancing your curling experience, we're re-publishing David Temple's essay on curling culture from The Classical Magazine's Being There issue. To read more about that issue, go here. To subscribe to the magazine or buy that issue, go here or, for PDF, .epub or Kindle formats, go here.
Picture a basement, but on the first floor, in a house located someplace cold and white. Walls and doors and floors feature various categories of wood that would disappoint if they didn’t smell like old cigarettes. There’s a mixture of hand-crafted oak furniture and cheap card tables propping up thirty-year-old slow cookers. Various pictures, blazed by fade and age and dimming, reside alongside glass cases featuring various medals and pins from decades ago. It’s your dad’s basement, or at least the basement he would have built had his hours not gotten cut at the auto plant.
There are people there, because this is not actually a basement. In the back is an actual beer wench, though with updated clothing. Men and women are at the tables, passing pitchers and stories. A man is hocking raffle tickets for meat or booze or both. This is a Kiwanis club and a beer hall and an Elks Lodge and a VFW — all of those things mixed inside an empty beer keg and painted with a brush of tradition onto a canvas of sport. We’re in a curling club. There is a tournament happening.
The curling one might see during the Olympics -- in the small hours, probably on cable channels that usually show financial news or dramas featuring handsome criminals trying to turn their lives around -- is, relative to the sport as it exists in the wild, a pretty polished product. The curling matches I attended at the Vancouver Olympics were not unlike any other Olympic event -- wait in line, get ticket scanned, take assigned seat, observe, applaud as needed. Everything was well-planned and well-organized and well-lit; the competition was fantastic. Fans cheered, but were respectful, waving their flags in the most Canadian of manner, such that they managed to show loyalty without obstructing anyone else's view. It was, finally, an Olympic event, and the bright lights and shiny aluminum bleachers fit the severity of one of the biggest stages in the sport. It was also absolutely unlike the dingy bacchanal that is a typical curling event.
Curling is not alone in this, certainly. It’s a big world, and surely there's a tribe on another continent that has some form of javelin-throwing contests where everyone is slamming on peyote. But on a Venn diagram mapping the intersection of competition and old-fashioned weekend debauchery, curling tournaments, or bonspiels, have very slim outer sections. These are social gatherings to which you are expected to bring your own brooms and weird shoes, keggers that happen to have a loser's bracket. Men and women willingly and purposely leave their families behind for three days under the auspices of competition, then drive to a windowless facility where registration covers an open bar, thrice-told stories, and a hope that the ice is true. This is a family reunion at which no one is actually related, and with a slightly higher chance of head trauma.
It is also a sport. Teams do care about performing well, and do their best to do so when on the ice. But there is a lot of downtime, and only so many ways in which to fill that time in a secluded above-ground basement. There can be and often are hours of space between games, and when curlers aren't curling, they are drinking. And also watching curling, but decidedly in that order. Curling clubs are specifically designed to not only be a place to play, but also to observe.
The ice is separated from the rest of the club by a layer of Plexiglas, which functions as a barrier between worlds -- it’s not unlike the bar/lane bifurcation at a bowling alley, but more severe. People deep in the throes of competition are seen as zoo animals, confined to an artificial habitat while onlookers point and remark from climate controlled comfort, beers in hand.
These spectators will soon be on the other side of the Plexiglas, or perhaps just were. While they hold their beers in one hand and point with the other, they are not just commenting on the game happening in front of them, but quietly thinking about and occasionally discussing softly the shots they could have done differently or tactics to beat their next opponents. The last few games of any given time slot are usually the tightest, as a team getting blown out will generally concede early as an act of sportsmanship and party-foul avoidance.
As the losing teams shake hands and put their stones away, an experiment in emergence begins. In no more than a five minute span, people once scattered all about -- eating, drinking, conversing -- inexplicably find themselves gathered at the end of one sheet. Where they may once have been cheering for friends or scoping out a future opponent, they now find themselves peering over shoulders as two closely-matched teams go at it. They are, after all, curlers. There is, in a close game at the end of a long day, a much tighter ratio of watching to drinking. There will always be time to drink, but curlers watch intensely when it matters most.
Save for those that act as qualifiers for national or Olympic competition, almost all bonspiels are invitationals, which means that all levels of competition and seriousness are welcome. This plays out about as strangely as you might expect. One team might arrive well-drilled and in matching outfits -- generally black pants and shoes with tight-fitting track jackets with each player's name embroidered on the back. A team one sheet over might be wearing sweatshirts and Zubaz, with attitudes to match. As a general rule, for every pair of expensive curling shoes, there are tennis shoes with crude Teflon sliders attached via elastic. For every moisture-wicking performance shirt, there are baseball caps bearing the logos of local colleges and jackets advertising trucking companies.
Veterans know not to be fooled by appearances. Many of the competitors in tattered khakis and stained t-shirts are fully capable of delivering a perfectly-placed high guard. A man whose belly lends one to believe he hasn't seen his private parts since the Clinton administration can nevertheless come out of the hack in a deep crouch, gracefully placing his stone exactly where he was asked. Experience, more than anything else, is the equalizer. This is curling: a strange and difficult thing that is, as a general rule, only done well by those who have done it often and for extended periods of time. To curl at a high level, one needs throw a thousand stones and deal with a thousand different strategic situations. This sounds like a cliche, perhaps, but it’s more of a truism -- this is just how it works. The speed and strength granted to the young are not of consequence when the only shot is to split two guards and freeze on the opponent's stone. Touch is the only skill that matters there.
There are no referees or officials at a bonspiel. Everything is governed on the honor system. If a stone is accidentally kicked during play, it's the job of the offender to alert the other team and put it back where it had been. If a sweeper grazes a thrown stone with their broom, they are the one who must own up to it and take it out of play. All involved must agree on who scored after every end before the stones are reset. If there is a disagreement, a measuring device -- it looks like some sort of ancient surveyor's tool, a more menacing and metallic version of the NFL’s first down chains -- is employed. The whole thing is rather adorably genteel. Before each game, it’s customary for every player to wish every other player luck, and make a brief introduction.
"Good curling" is the usual credo.
After the game is over, hands are shaken again and congratulations are passed to everyone on a game well played. It’s all scrupulously circular, all very much in service of the idea that this is all in good fun. If a winner must be decided, it will be done in the most deferential way possible. If not for the yelling -- the yes/no calls to the sweepers -- the ice would be almost mute during a game, with only a few "nice shot" and "excuse me" utterances breaking the silence. The shouting is usually with enough force that anger might be implied, but the volume has more to do with the importance of the situation. To listen to it, it would all sound very serious. It might not sound very all-in-good-fun at all.
But the split is the thing, here. The doors between those two dimensions -- the ice and the clubhouse, the cold and the warm -- have about them a quality of absolution. What happened on the ice must remain there; it does not survive re-entry to the climate-controlled comfort of the clubhouse. No matter which side won or by how much, it's tradition that the two teams grab a table and a pitcher. There may be a little talk about what just happened, but for the most part, there isn’t -- friendly conversation is the prime objective. The transformation is less difficult than it sounds, and also born of repetition: do it long enough, and the two sides sharing a table really and truly are just thirsty people with a common interest, and happy to be out of the cold.
That curling is a fairly obscure sport is not lost on those who do it, casually or seriously or alternately both. But one of the things that makes curling the sports curio that it is doubles as one of the sport’s foremost virtues -- there is no such thing as a professional curler, and not just because of the Olympics’ malleable fetish for amateurism. This is a game without professionals, and most at home in those strange, timeless-but-dated not-quite-basements.
It is a game for the masses, passed down from medieval Scotland to people who are seeking to fill their need of competition and socialization in one fell swoop. Sure, they could have joined a bowling league or a softball team, but those sports are too easily infiltrated by the layperson.
Hoards of teenagers do not wander into a curling club looking to fill out a Saturday night. There are no neon lights adorning the outside of a curling club, no weekday specials or late-night disco curling promotions. One has to be serious to enter, if not too serious; it doesn’t happen by accident.
Serious, that is, about committing to a sport that involves both strategy and skill, but also beerish camaraderie and 50/50 raffles and community. To walk through those absolving doors, one must understand the double meaning of the word "club," and be willing and humble enough to avail themselves of membership in a club that is the opposite of exclusive. When young and old, fancy- and shabbily-dressed congregate for a weekend of tough matches and good company, the sport begins to fade into something else. Every team plays its own game -- as committed or not, as competitive or not, as serious or as un-serious -- parallel to every other team. They play the sport they signed on to play, and then they walk through those doors and drink from the same taps. They are still themselves, still the people that chose all this, but they are all also more or less the same.