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February 3, 2014

Mitchel Olszak: Winter Olympics are a stone’s throw away

NEW CASTLE — With the Winter Olympic Games about to begin in Sochi, Russia, there is considerable interest in the event.

Not only is there buzzing over skiing and skating competitions, but controversy rages over security fears, the anti-gay attitudes of the Russian government and whether or not preparations for the games have been adequate.

But we all know what’s really drawing attention to Sochi.

It’s the curling.

Several years ago, I tuned in to an Olympic broadcast, hoping to catch part of the luge competition. Instead, I was treated to something that looked a little bit like shuffleboard on ice.

After casual periods of conversation, people were very carefully shoving what looked like big stones with handles attached down the ice. I later learned these were called “stones” or “rocks.”

These objects glided down the ice toward what seemed to be a target of sorts. Then, to my utter amazement, other people began to use brooms to sweep the ice in front of the moving rocks. It was one of the most baffling things I had ever seen.

I later learned this was the game of curling. It is indeed something like shuffleboard, and perhaps a bit like bocce. Yet it is completely unlike most other winter Olympic competitions, in that speed has no place in curling. Instead, the goal is absolute precision.

So every time a stone is pushed down the ice, it is preceded by a strategy session among teammates. They discuss the route they want to take and where they want the stone to wind up. The broom is essential in this regard, because sweeping the ice in front of the stone affects its speed and — to some degree — its direction.

As I watched these curling competitions slowly unfold, I couldn’t help but conclude that the game was a creation of some Canadians who had a few too many Molsons the back parking lot of a Saskatchewan bar. It turns out, however, that curling is actually a very old game with roots in Scotland.

Still, I strongly suspect that drinking had something to do with its creation.

Basically, the goal in curling is to finish the set of stones with one of yours the closest to the center of the target at the opposite end of the ice. But it’s not just a matter of pushing rocks and hoping for the best. Curlers consider how to position their early throws in order to block opponents. They also have the ability to use their stones to nudge the other team’s rocks out of contention.

A key to curling is the action its name implies. Players can get their stones to curve or curl into a desired position. This is one of the purposes of the broom. Brushing the ice in front of the stone causes it to melt slightly and affects movement. With every stone, that status of the game is assessed, and the players discuss and debate their next course of action.

In theory, curling ought to be boring. It’s slow, no one’s defying death and I still have trouble wrapping my mind around the use of a broom in athletic competition. But it’s absolutely fascinating, and has quickly become an Olympic staple.

Let the games begin!

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