The Olympics are here and besides the pomp, circumstance, and human interest stories, it also means our lives are about to be taken over by really obscure sports we get hooked on for two weeks and then forget about until the next Olympics.
The Summer Olympics have a bevy of these — water polo and handball being among my favorites — but the Winter Olympics has the very best of these sports: curling.
Like shuffleboard on ice, curling is a sport that unfolds slowly but is no less captivating. It can set up thrilling moments, even if we don’t really understand what, exactly, might be going on.
So, with lots of curling to come in the next few weeks, here’s a quick primer to get you ready for some hot stone-on-ice action.
No, really, what the hell is curling?
Curling traces it roots to 16th-century Scotland where players passed the time sliding rocks along small bodies of ice like frozen ponds, presumably while taking part in the other great winter pastime, drinking copious amounts of booze.
After an appearance in 1924, the sport largely disappeared from the Olympic scene, popping up as an exhibition sport three other times (1932, 1988, and 1992). But it rejoined the full lineup of medal sports once more in 1998 and has stayed ever since.
Not much has really changed since the Scots were throwing stones all those centuries ago. The rules have surely been refined but the general principles are basically the same, as you’ll see below.
Watch for the hammer, or, your curling basics
Ok, so how does it all play out? The World Curling Federation has an excellent, short video that outlines basics in an exceedingly concise and accurate way.
See? Not so hard!
Basically, you have a sheet of ice with a target (called a “house”) on either end. During each round (called an “end”), both teams guide eight stones down the ice. After all the rocks are thrown, whichever team is closest to the center of the house scores points. After all the ends are complete, the team with the most points wins.
There are a few more terms to be aware of, though, so you’re up to speed. The “button” is the inner-most circle of the house, and the “tee” or “pin” is the center point of both the button and the house. It’s from that point that the distance of the rocks are measured to determine the score of each end.
And then there’s the “hammer,” the last rock to be thrown in an end. Obviously, having the last shot in each end is a big strategic advantage, the difference between taking the points or not. In subsequent ends, the team that didn’t score in the previous end gets the hammer; if neither team scores in an end, the team with the hammer holds on to it.
If you want to dive even deeper, both the NBC Olympic site and the World Curling Federation site have more information on the nuances and deeper rules of the game. But even if you just stick with the above, you’ll be just fine.
Does the U.S. have a chance?
There’s always a chance! But they’ve got some big obstacles to get around.
Unsurprisingly, this is a sport that cold-weather countries traditionally do well in. Canada dominates both on the men’s and women’s side of the ice (with a combined 10 medals), as do the Swiss (with 5 combined medals). Norway’s men’s team and the Swedish women’s team are also forces to be reckoned with.
Since curling returned as a medal sport at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, the United States has only medaled once: a bronze medal for the men’s team at the 2006 Turin Games.
The U.S. men’s team is led by John Shuster, who has several Olympics under his belt, including being part of that bronze medal-winning 2006 team. Two other members of the team, Joe Polo and John Landsteiner, also have Olympic experience.
The women are ranked seventh in the world but finished fifth in Olympic qualifying, putting them in a great position to play spoiler. They’re also a completely new team; led by skip Nina Roth, all five members are first-time Olympians.
Adding a bit more intrigue to the 2018 Olympics: curling becomes one of the few sports with a mixed gender competition, too. Siblings Matt and Becca Hamilton, both already members of the U.S. men’s and women’s team, respectively, will be going for a mixed doubles medal, having qualified in fifth. Both are first time Olympians.
But if you really want to watch some top-notch curling, follow all three Canadian teams as they rank number one in all three categories. According to betting site Bovada, Canada is also the heavy betting favorite — though Sweden and Switzerland are positioned to make some noise, too.
In other words, look for the Land of Trudeau to add more curling gold to their trophy case.
How to watch
You’ll have plenty of chances to catch curling this Olympics. With three competitions, the preliminary round-robin action actually starts Thursday night (U.S. EST) and continues until the last day of the Olympics.
The Mixed Doubles competition will take up the first couple of days before giving way to the men’s and women’s competitions. Because of the time change from South Korea, the two sessions throughout the Olympics will begin in the U.S. at 7:05 pm EST (the “early” session in Pyeongchang) and 6:05 am EST the following morning (the “late” session in Pyeongchang).
On TV, NBC Sports Network will be home to most of the curling matches, with other NBC cable networks like USA and CNBC hosting some matches. If you prefer the TV route, you can see the full schedule here and get to setting your DVR. One note: based on the schedule currently provided, few of the curling matches will be shown on television live.
So if live is your thing, be sure to head here to check out NBC’s full range of livestream curling coverage available on desktop and across various NBC apps.
The Paralympics squad competes
If you want even more curling action, the Paralympic Games start March 9 and run through March 18, and wheelchair curling is a key part of the action. These teams are mixed gender and the U.S. team for 2018 features a range of experienced and new faces.
Penny Greely and Meghan Lino were both members of Team USA at the 2014 Winter Games. (Greely has a bronze medal from playing on Team USA’s wheelchair volleyball team at the 2004 Paralympic Games.) Kirk Black, Steve Emt, and and Justin Marshall will make their Paralympic debuts in 2018.
Specific details haven’t been announced yet, but NBC will be airing close to 100 hours of Paralympic action on TV, with additional coverage on NBCSports.com, the Olympic Channel, and OlympicChannel.com.