Olympics brings unusual sport of curling back into the public eye

Even though most in Louisiana didn’t grow up around winter sports, they’re easy enough to figure out — ski faster, skate prettier, jump farther and score more goals in hockey.

Then, there is curling.

For those seeing it for the first time, it seems remarkable only for the lack of athleticism and the manic attention to cleanliness it seems to require. Curling only shows up on our TV screens every four years, when the Winter Olympics is upon us. For those who tune in, though, it can be as addictive as it is inexplicable.

The curling competition just cranked up in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. If you’ve never seen curling, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Before you do, here are five things you ought to know.

Who thought up this crazy game?

Apparently, the Scots (who needed something to do when it was too cold to play golf), although there are historical references to similar games elsewhere in northern Europe. The first recognized curling clubs sprang up and the first rules were written in Scotland. Somehow, the land of kilts and haggis seems like the natural place.

What the heck is that thing they’re sliding across the ice?

It’s a block of granite — cut, shaped and polished until it is 36 inches in circumference and weighs 42 to 44 pounds (more than 2½ times that of a bowling ball) and sandblasted along the rim so the part that strikes other stones is not smooth. All of the stones at the Olympics come from a single manufacturer, Kays of Scotland, which makes them from granite taken from a bleak island called the Ailsa Craig. (The island otherwise serves as a weather gauge for western Scots, who say that when you can see Ailsa Craig, it’s going to rain, and when you can’t, it’s raining.)

What’s the point?

Think of curling as a combination of bocce and shuffleboard played on ice. (Oh, you’re neither Italian nor living in a south Florida retirement community? Sorry. Let’s start over.) Curlers slide their stones toward a set of concentric rings. Teams get one point for each stone left inside those rings closer to any of the opposing team’s stones. The team with the most points after 10 “ends” (like an inning in baseball) wins.

Sounds simple? It’s not.

Because teams alternate, with eight throws per team at each end, considerable strategy comes into play. Stones in scoring position can be knocked away, so teams often try to place stones to obstruct opponents, sometimes preemptively. By putting a spin on the stone, it can be made to curve around obstacles. So, it gets complicated. Curling fans sometimes refer to their sport as “chess on ice,” which sounds way classier than “a combination of bocce and shuffleboard on ice.”

What is the deal with the sweeping?

This, of course, is what gives curling its bizarre cache — not just that there are people using brooms on the ice, but that they do so with such furious intensity while scurrying sideways.

As hilariously entertaining as this is to the casual viewer, it’s not why they do it. (OK, it’s not primarily why they do it, but it probably helps the TV ratings.)

Vigorously sweeping creates enough friction to slightly heat the ice, so the stone travels farther and straighter, and the sweepers are trying to influence its path.

While most of the sweeping is done by the team throwing the stone, the opponent can sweep once the stone passes the center of the circles.

Will Lolo Jones be on Team USA?

No, just bobsledding. But if she had tried out, we’re sure she would have made a heck of a curler.