Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 11.15.04
Stanstead, Quebec


Curling: sport of geeks & scientists

Researchers in Canada and Scotland are feuding over what makes a curling stone curl. The Canadian researcher says it's the thin layer of water at the front of the stone, the Scottish researcher the water along the sides.

Feuding scientists, curling, Canada. You can't get much geekier than that.

I can say this because I have "geek" running through my veins. In high school, my idea of a sport was band practice. We'd sit around after a big performance of "The Theme From Hogan's Heroes" and compare calluses.

And now I curl.

Curling is a sport the way golf and bowling are sports - you can drink while you're playing and it actually improves your game.

Curling, however, is not some loosey-goosey slapdash game. It has many rules and protocols. For instance, the winning team buys the drinks.

Another rule: Never challenge the authority of the skip. And never call the skip "Skippy."

One more rule: No outside shoes in the club.

This is very important during the winter when outside slush and sand can end up on the bottom of your curling shoes. The crud then falls off on the ice and can ruin a shot. (Whether this actually happens is scientifically unproven but the mere possibility offers an excuse for a bad shot: "Oh, it must have picked up something," you say as your errant stone topples a 72-year-old on the adjoining sheet.)

I broke this rule last year when I tracked slush into the changing room. This elicited some bellowing from our "iceman," a still-frightening retired RCMP officer, which goes to show there is violence in any sport. I assuaged him with heartfelt apologies and a round from the bar.

This type of camaraderie goes back to curling's Scottish roots, where warring clans would meet on an icy pond to throw a frozen haggis back and forth across the ice. When more than two clans gathered, they would play a tournament called a "bonspiel," which comes from the Gaelic words for "good" and "drinking opportunity." Today, clubs hold tournaments for new members called "funspiels," which roughly translated from the Gaelic means "curl until your pants fall down."

Actually, if de-pantsing were part of the game, curling might be more popular, especially with young people. As it is, rinks have a hard time attracting people under the age of, say, 87. Many clubs have tried to run youth programs to show teens how to sweep and throw stones with the right weight. But how many teenage girls have fled these programs in tears after their skip shouted at them "I want you over the hog line" and "You're too heavy!"

Alas, curling cannot be explained. It must be experienced.

Its mysteries are deep, which is why scientists with too much time and research money end up arguing over it. No doubt they will soon move on to other curling-related studies, like, for instance, does sweeping really do anything besides give the other players something to do when they're not throwing?

Sweeping is supposed to make the stone move faster and further. But how do you prove this?

You can't undo the sweeping to see what the shot would have been like without it. Likewise, you can't see what a shot would have been like if you had swept harder. Where's the science!

I compare it to those plastic doodads people stick on their cars to scare away deer. The car never hits a deer, ergo, the doodads work. But maybe they were just lucky enough never to hit a deer. Bottom line: How much faith do you want to put in a life-saving doodad you picked up at the Dollar Store?

I did a Google search on the question "Does sweeping affect curling?" and the only response I got was "Yes. You might want to wear a hairnet during chores." I don't get it.

These are the questions curlers ponder, usually after a "glockenspiel" (Gaelic for "curling while eating German sausage"). We sit around talking about our performance, nursing our calluses, and drinking beer. Hey, curling is a lot like band.