SOCHI — All the best sports, at their core, come down to something very basic, something that can generally be described in just a few words of what I like to call caveman language.
The 100-meter dash: “Me run faster than you to tree.”
Baseball: “Throw rock. Me hit with stick.”
Soccer: “Me kick ball.”
Biathlon: “Me ski. Me shoot gun.”
Boxing: “Me punch person in face.”
Football: “Me tackle and give person concussion.”
Half pipe snowboarding: “Me do rad cab double cork 1440.”
But perhaps the most basic sport of the Winter Olympic Games— even if it doesn’t seem that way at first — is curling. People have been curling, in one form or another, for about 500 years and that’s because in those days all they had were rocks. There may be numerous baffling things about curling (not even including the Norwegian men’s pants), but the objective is as basic as it gets.
Me slide big stone down ice. You slide big stone down ice. Winner gets rock closest.
This target premise — the winner is the one who pushes, throws, slides or hits an object closest to the target — is the objective of countless games. Golf. Darts. Bowling. Archery. Horseshoes. Bocce. Shuffleboard. Skee ball. Curling is in the family of just about every great drinking game in the world. Curling, people in Canada will tell you, is a pretty good drinking game in its own right.
But the point is that there’s something basic and innate about the game. Curling feels familiar the first time you see it. You’ve played something like it in your life no matter where you are. If you watch curling a few minutes, you begin to understand the rules. A few more minutes you start thinking along with the strategies. Watch for a few more minutes, you want to play. Watch for a few more after that and you just might play.
This doesn’t seem like such a crazy pipe dream. The other great thing about curling is that the curlers look like people you know. Take the U.S. women’s curling team — what has become my favorite team at the Olympics. The U.S. team lost 7-4 to Switzerland on Monday, but it was just their first game. They seemed pretty chill about it. “We knew we weren’t going undefeated,” said team coach Bill Todhunter, a sensible way of looking at things. And, no, I’m not sure what a curling coach does either.
Then, everything about the team is sensible. All four players have been at an Olympics before. The team’s skip — one of the countless joys of curling is that they call the captain “skip” — is Erika Brown, a 41-year-old physician’s assistant from Wisconsin who has three kids and season tickets to the Packers. She trains during her lunch break. This is also true: She began curling when she was five in part because her Dad, Steve, owns a curling supply store.
What is the name of this Steve’s curling supply store? Right. It’s “Steve’s Curling Supplies.”
The vice-skip — yeah, she’s called the vice-skip, how awesome is this sport? — is Debbie McCormick, a 40-year-old curling supply distributor (not for Steve’s, unfortunately), who also lives in Madison. Her father Wally was also in the curling business; he was on two teams that won bronze at the world championships. In 1998, at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Debbie’s boyfriend Peter (they met curling) proposed to her on Valentine’s Day. “I know you came her for a gold medal,” he told her. “But I hope you’ll accept this gold ring instead.”
Third, Jessica Schultz, the baby of the group at 29, works as a physical therapy assistant in Minneapolis and she tries to get in her curling training after work. She also likes crocheting, sewing, running, biking, hiking, cleaning, shopping, traveling and cooking. I’m taking this right off the list.
Fourth is my wife Margo, who likes all those same things that Jessica likes. Well, OK, no, Margo’s not on this team. But she should be. This isn’t an Olympic team; this is Margo’s book club. They might be talking about “Gone Girl” during the intermission. Fourth is actually Ann Swisshelm, 45 years old, a 14th generation American and Cubs fan who was on the Olympic team 12 years ago and is back.
Seriously — how can you not love everything about that team? I don’t just want them to win the Olympic gold, I want to have a barbecue with them. See here are a few athletes we recognize, we associate with, we could imagine trading places with. Yes, that last part’s an illusion. Curling is a game meant to look easy when it’s played brilliantly. Sliding a stone to an exact spot takes absurd feel. The sweeping (which slightly heats the ice and makes the stone go farther) is funny looking but takes a great deal of dexterity and awareness. The strategies are actually quite dizzying.
So yes, curling is an illusion. But it’s a good illusion. All around us are athletes doing the most impossible things. They are doing quad jumps on the ice, they are jumping off mountains in the snow, they are skating blindingly fast around a track roughly the size of a silver dollar. Most of the Olympians are just that, Olympian, they are athletic phenoms, they are driven geniuses, they are obsessives who dreamed of being the best in the world and could never let go.
Meanwhile, Curling looks, you know, fun and kind of relaxed and a great way to spend an afternoon on ice. Its origins are pretty ancient. Its rules are built around sportsmanship. The 42-pound stones are polished granite from Scotland’s Alisa Craig. The rules are comprehensible. There’s no instant replay, no steroid advantages, very small concussion risk.
And people still go crazy when the situation calls for sweepers to vigorously sweep that ice. People love the sweepers. Funny, no other sport has brooms. Except Quidditch. That would be a great Olympic sport too.