You’ve heard of it. You’ve seen it on TV. You may even have a cousin in Canada who eats and breathes it. But exactly what is curling and where did it come from? Here are ten things you need to know about the sport.
1. It’s Scottish.
Like a number of sports, the origins of curling are up for some debate. After all, who can say which person or people group were the first to enjoy skimming stones across frozen water? Because of the conditions needed, it seems a sure bet that it originated in a northern European country. Wherever it began, few will dispute the fact that the pastime developed into a modern sport in Scotland.
2. It’s old. Like medieval old.
The first evidence of such a game in Scotland was uncovered when an old pond was drained in Dunblane. Two curling stones were found bearing the years 1511 and 1551 on them. Written evidence from 1540 records what seems to be a legal dispute that was settled on the ice between John Sclater, a monk in Paisley Abbey and Gavin Hamilton, a representative of the Abbot. The word curling appears in the work of Scottish poet and historian Henry Adamson. In his most notable poem about the death of a young merchant friend, written in 1620, it reads “James Gall…was much given to pastime, as golf, archery, curling, and jovial company.” Some years later, an entry in the Glasgow Assembly records details a local bishop, Graham of Orkney, being accused by his assembly of Presbyterians of a terrible act: “He was a curler on the ice on the Sabbath.” The world’s first curling club was organized in Kilsyth, Scotland, in 1716, also home to the oldest purpose-build curling pond. Other clubs began springing up in Scotland and around the world as Scots exported the game of curling wherever they settled, including Canada, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, and New Zealand.
3. Queen Victoria loved it.
In 1838, the Grand Caledonian Curling Club was established in Edinburgh and the first rules of curling were drawn up. Queen Victoria was given a demonstration of curling in 1842 at Scone Palace and was so fascinated by the game, she gave permission for the grand club to change its name to the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. By this time, the game was gaining momentum as a popular winter sport around the world.
4. The Canadians really loved it.
Perhaps nowhere outside Scotland is curling more widely played than in Canada. The Royal Montreal Curling Club is the oldest curling club in North America, established in 1807 by Scottish immigrants. They used the Saint Lawrence River as their rink and utilized cast-iron and wood curling stones until granite stones became available. The club in Montreal also built one of the first closed curling rinks in Canada. Soon, clubs began popping up all over the country throughout the first half of the 19th century, almost all of them formed by Scots and featuring names like the Heather club, the Thistles, Caledonians, and Granites. As Gerald Redmond puts it in his book The Sporting Scots of 19th Century Canada, “wherever there were Scotsmen, in fact, the sport of curling was likely to emerge…it was natural that Scots should be the first and most serious ambassadors for their sports outside Scotland.”
5. There’s one simple rule.
Although curling is a game of skill and strategy, hence the nickname “chess on ice,” it boils down to one simple rule – get your stone closest to the target. The modern game is played on a sheet of ice approximately 15 feet wide and 150 feet long with targets located at each end. In each of ten sessions or ends in a game, two teams of four players each throw a total of 8 stones. After each stone is thrown, players sweep its path to guide it and allow smooth movement. Rapid sweeping can cause a stone to curl, or turn, less and travel farther. The winner of each end is the team with a stone in the target zone, or house, that is closest to the center, or button. Teams earn points for each stone closer to the button than the nearest one of an opponent’s. The last throw is called the hammer and is often used to knock out other stones.
6. It’s an Olympic sport. Really!
Curling had its Olympic debut at the 1924 Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix, although it would be 2006 before the International Olympic Committee ruled that it was part of the official Olympic program in 1924 and not a demonstration event. Curling appeared again as a demonstration sport at the 1932 Games, and again after a lengthy absence in 1988 and 1992. Curling was permanently added to the Olympics program as a men’s and women’s event for the 1998 Nagano Games. It also became an official sport in the Paralympic Games in 2006.
7. How did it get so popular? Blame Canada.
Today, curling enjoys unprecedented popularity thanks to television coverage. This began in earnest at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., in 2010, when curling was presented to the world in a memorable way. During those games, curling events were watched by an average of 22 million people and became the third most watched sport globally of the Olympics. In Brazil, it was the #1 watched sport! It’s like they woke up one morning in Rio and forgot what a soccer ball was!
8. It boasts the first female president of a winter Olympic sport.
Scottish curler Kate Caithness is the first female president of the World Curling Federation, making her the first female president of a winter Olympic sport. Caithness began curling in the 1980s at the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. She promoted wheelchair curling and her efforts helped make it a Paralympic sport. She serves on the Olympic Program Commission, which reviews sports and events for both summer and winter Olympics, and in 2013, she received an OBE (a fancy title that means you are deemed worthy by Her Majesty) by Queen Elizabeth II for her services to curling and international disability sport.
9. The best curling stones come from Scotland.
Ten miles off the Ayrshire coast of Scotland lies a small volcanic island called Ailsa Craig. 240 acres of solid granite rising out of the Firth of Clyde, it’s home to Europe’s biggest gannet colony and a significant number of puffins. It’s also the place where most curling stones are made. A company on the mainland called Kays of Scotland manufactures the Olympic and federation stones. It mines three types of granite on Ailsa Craig – common green, blue hone, and red hone. It’s considered the toughest granite in the world, making it ideal for curling. Until recently, the island had actually been up for sale. Now, a nature conservation trust looks set to purchase the island and secure the future of the bird population there for years to come.
10. It’s sexy.
If the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are anything to go by, curling is heating it up! Take Russian curler Anna Sidorova, for example, turning heads for her beauty as well as her curling skills. She and other athletes feature in a Women of Curling calendar revealing the sensual side of the game. “Curling has become sexy,” says World Curling Federation president Caithness. Then there’s the Norway men’s curling team, who dressed to impress in the 2010 Vancouver games and are upping the ante in Sochi with a set of flamboyant, sharp-looking trousers designed to dazzle and distract.
Make no mistake. Curling is here to stay. And the more you understand about the sport, the more you’ll be able to justify to your family and friends the hours you stay up late at night watching people roll stones along ice!