Mayhem. Disaster. Brilliance. Insanity.
Trust the Broom.
If you have not seen the curling at the Beijing 2022 Olympics because you still believe it’s like watching ice melt or golf, then you are missing out.
Try this. Take a ball–soccer ball, baseball, croquet ball, pickleball, doesn’t matter. Go out to the street and place a piece of paper down on one end. Walk to the other end, about half a football-field’s length away. Now roll the ball so it hits the piece of paper (that’s called the button). If you want, you can run in front of the ball while it’s moving and sweep rocks out of the way, just to get the feel of it.
If you think that seems unfair, because the ball will roll too fast, then roll it slower. If you think it seems impossible because how will you aim? That’s curling.
Beijing’s curling matches have been nail-biters, sudden death overtime spectacles, full-out rammies, if my translator is reading Scottish slang correctly. Here are three worth reviewing, even if you’ve already seen them and definitely if you have not.
The Button Whisperer
The magic of Stefania Constantini of Italy was a sight to behold. She and her mixed-doubles partner, Amos Mosaner, sliced through their round robin tournament like a blade through the ice, winning their first seven games with little contest. They came out of nowhere, upending the veterans of curling from Great Britain (*coff Scotland coff*), Canada, and Sweden.
Mosander at 6 foot 6 would practically fling the stone, flying after it to broom his own path, the very image of a basketball player in a breakaway about to dunk. Yet with such speed came serious precision, and more often than not, his launch would smack out two or three opposing stones and threaten to rack up a multi-point score.
The two of them went undefeated in the entire tournament, though their last three matches yielded highly watchable competitions. The donnybrook with the Canadians went into overtime (a 9th end), to the last stone, which required two measurements to resolve. The Swedes took the schooling in the semifinals, and skip Ericsson used it to help the Swedish men into the gold medal match. The Norwegians, married couple Magnus Nedregotten and Kristin Skaslien, accepted their silver medals with grace and hugged each other on the medal stand.
The willowy Mosaner, whose energy seemed to drive the pair so decisively in mixed doubles,then seemed a deer in the headlights in the men’s event. Italy’s men’s team lost all their early games and ended 3-6, far out of contention. Thus, it laid clear who was the real driving force behind the undefeated pair of Italians.
Constantini was well named. She nearly always hit the shots she intended, and whether a stone needed to arc sharply or move straight into the button (the center), she seemed to never miss. Because Italy had no qualifying women’s team, her competition ended with a smile and a gold medal. But the country needs to find some more talented women for their curling team. Stefania Constantini is only 22 years old.
Oh Dear! Oh Dear!
The winning men’s gold medal team in 2018 was a shock to the world and to them–Team USA. Skip John Shuster returned to Beijing to defend his medal, but the Americans found it hard going from the start. They won; they lost. Most of their match with the Russians involved blanking ends, which is kind of like teams trading innings with intentional walks followed by double plays. Not so interesting. In Team USA’s semi-final matchup with the vaunted GBR team, the American team tried a few strategies…
He’s gonna try the counterguard run-back double-takeout…
… which ultimately didn’t play out. Team GBR moved on.
The Brits were themselves trying to pull bring a medal back home after being blanked in the last Games, following two medals in Sochi. Team GBR played Sweden in the finals. One team shot 90%; the other shot 94%, which was like having two flame-throwing pitchers going at it. Classic brilliance and mayhem.
The Brits were in fact four Scottish gentlemen, which seems fitting since Scotland is where curling was invented. It’s even where Olympic stones are born.
If Not the Stone of Scone, Then Why Not the Stone of Ailsa Craig
The granite of these specialized stones–the Olympic versions–come from one of the western islands, a tiny rock in the Firth of Clyde called Ailsa Craig. Kays Curling has had the contract for mining and shaping the stones, exclusively since the millennium, pulling boulders out of the rock and honing them to slippery perfection. Today, the rocks even sport GPS trackers that can tell when a thrown stone isn’t properly over conducted over the hog line, which is a violation.
This craggy, forbidding country, sliding north towards the Arctic, is not for those with a delicate constitution. It surely makes the Scots a stoic people. A little morose, like the Finns, tending to drink perhaps but not so broody, nor so prone to singing like their Irish cousins. I spent three spring days in Scotland a few years ago and was mesmerized by its immense beauty, by the winds that whistled across the hills and over rock after chilly rock in those endless channels. Such beauty could break your heart while it freeze your bones. Such a place could give birth to stones, to a game like curling which requires precision, controlled speed, and delicacy beyond that of the greatest ballerina. A game that still breaks your heart.
Ooh boy! and a Fist Bump
Aside from the three final mixed doubles Italian matches and men’s semis and final matches, the women’s matches will also take your breath away. This is a sport that women can perform exactly as well–or better–than their counterparts. The Swiss team stomped through their own tournament nearly flawlessly, while the Swedes and the British were looking for a return to glory. A talented young Japanese team jumped into the fray as well.
I found particular joy in the semi-final match between the British (Scots) and the Swedes. The Peacock announcers were spectacular. Jackie Lockhart’s lilting brogue made every play sound like music. Her partner, whose accent sounded a bit Canadian? (couldn’t find her name in NBC’s press releases) was full of colorful descriptions like the British Skip Eve Muirhead “sees angles in her dreams.”
The final score was 12-11, which should tell you that the match was close and harsh and went into a dramatic extra end. The rocks stacked up. There were three and four-point scores, curling versions of grand slams. The end was fire-breathing smack-down action, the last stone thrown into a viper’s nest of opposing rocks jealously guarding the center.
It was a calculation, a deft, clever throw, which was ever so close. In the end, one team leaned in and assessed the distance as a loss and acknowledged the winner with a simple fist bump.