The sport of curling

Team GB may have impressed at the sport of curling at the Winter Olympics earlier this year, but, as Nick Hammond discovers, ‘chess on ice’ is not as easy as it looks.

It’s cold. I suppose that’s to be expected when you’re playing a winter sport, but, to be honest, up until now, although I’ve watched the sport of curling on television, I’ve been more mesmerised by the sliding and the stones, the gesticulations and frenetic brushing.

Yet, as soon I step out onto the rink on a farm in Kent, no less—it’s the cold that first greets me with an icy handshake and I quickly wish I’d worn a thicker jumper. My instructor, Tracey Brown, dons her special Tefloncoated ‘slippers’, gloves and a nice thick fleece (which I gaze at longingly) and shows me the ropes. Or should I say, the ‘hacks’, the starting blocks at the end of each curling lane. From here, each curler begins his or her throw everyone in each team of four gets a go.

It looks straightforward when Tracey does it. A push and a glide, an elegant and graceful streamlined release and the great granite stone (weighing between 38lb and 44lb) slides off on a serene journey. The peace is soon shattered, however, when the rest of the team starts yelling and brushing as the stone nears the ‘house’ (or circular target zone) at the other end of the ice.

Believe me; it’s not easy. I feel like a giraffe on roller skates once I, too, put on the Teflon specials. Never mind graceful and elegant, all I’m concentrating on is not falling over. Which, of course, I do immediately. No sympathy here. I’m told to get up quickly to avoid damaging the ice.

The ice is the thing, you see. It’s not just any old ice, which is why curling on an ice-skating rink is no match made in heaven. It’s all about the glide of the stone, the smoothness, the glassiness and the speed of the ice before it. Any minor imperfections could slow the stone or minutely alter its trajectory. And, by the time the stone reaches where it’s supposed to be at the other end of the rink, that minute alteration could mean the difference between success and failure.

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‘Better,’ calls Tracey as I manage to stay upright in an excruciating take on the splits and release the stone on its way. ‘Don’t push it—guide it.’ As a reward, she fetches me a fleece. Now, I feel part of the team.

Scotsman and farmer Ernest Fenton, who, for years, missed the traditional sport of his homeland, established Fenton’s Rink in 2004. Seeing the way the UK milk industry was heading, he swapped his cows for ice. Although there are more than 20 rinks offering curling in Scotland, his is the only dedicated one south of the border and scores of adults and youngsters gather noisily on the ice each week during the season (October to April) to hone their skills. However, you can also try the sport in Sheffield and Deeside, North Wales.

Anna and Ben Fowler, brother and sister players who live locally, have gone one step further and now represent their respective English curling teams. Ben has even chosen to continue his education at the University of Glasgow so that he can be within hailing distance of a curling rink, but, with very little funding available, members have to self-finance their trips to other clubs and championships around Europe and the world. Only members of the elite GB team are professional curlers.

My education continues under Tracey’s encouragement, my muscles beginning to sing at being put to a new and unusual use. I try to feign nonchalance while gulping down air when she’s not looking. Not only is the actual throwing a lot harder than it looks, it’s by no means the only part the individual curler has to play.

When it’s another team member’s turn under the watchful eye of the team leader or ‘skip’, who directs them where best to aim their stone for maximum effect the other team members are at the ready with their faithful brooms. These high-tech contraptions, resembling the humble floor mop, can cost hundreds of pounds each and are used to polish the ice frantically immediately in front of a stone to clear its path and ease its passage. It looks comical on TV, but I soon forgot about the cold when it was my turn. This is serious graft. You’re supposed to brush just in front of the moving stone while sliding along beside it, your brush moving in synchronised opposites to your colleague, so that not an inch of ice is missed.

You need to apply all your might in downward pressure on the broom and go for it at 100 miles an hour, with the skip and thrower bellowing instructions at you all the while. The aim is to get your stone closest to the middle of the house and those closest secure a point. Of course, strategy comes into play. There are blocking manoeuvres as well as defensive and offensive plays canny curlers live up to their name by bending the stone around obstacles by applying clockwise or counter-clockwise rotation as they throw.

And, as it was founded in Scotland, it’s no surprise to learn there’s a social side to the sport, too. When matches are under way, trays of drinks are continuously brought round to participants. There’s a full bar here at Fenton’s, I notice, replete with an ample supply of the necessary drams.

Back in the clubhouse, as I rub some feeling back into my screaming thighs over a warming cup of coffee, Tracey explains: ‘It’s a wonderful sport to teach children. It’s played in a spirit of true sportsmanship fairly and with skill. I’ve never seen anyone deviate from that in all the years I’ve been involved. It’s a thinking person’s game, but there’s certainly a physical element to it and we’ve noticed a real spike in interest since the Winter Olympics.’

The Canadians have taken curling to their hearts and embraced it like one of their own winter sports. But the sight of Eve Muirhead and her team securing bronze in the women’s event in the Sochi Games this year and the men going one better to grab a silver has galvanised the sport south of the border. Grab a brush and don’t forget your fleece: it’s curling time down south.

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Curling Facts

  • Curling was invented by the Scots in the 16th century to take advantage of the wintry conditions on their ponds and lochs for much of the year
  • It’s often called ‘chess on ice’
  • Most of the curling stones (or rocks, right) in the world are hewn from granite from Ailsa Craig, an island off Scotland’s Ayrshire coast
  • Fair play or ‘the spirit of curling’ is still all-important—and the winning team always buys a round for the opposition
  • Curling has been an official part of the Winter Olympics since 1998 and the Canadian teams have dominated proceedings, with wins for the men in 2006, 2010 and 2014 and the women in 1998 and 2014