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Getting to grips with curling

Very pretty, but how do you use them?

(Keystone Archive)

The start of the world curling championships in Lausanne may leave you confused, if you can't tell your ends from your crampits. But help is at hand as swissinfo's Roy Probert seeks enlightenment in the art of sliding rocks over ice.

"It's a very simple game - until you try it," warned Alfred Schrenk, the instructor who had the unfortunate task of initiating me in the mysterious arts of curling.

Our lesson was at the ice rink in Ouchy, home of the Lausanne Olympique team that won the men's gold medal for Switzerland at the Nagano Olympics in 1998.

Despite a number of recent modifications, the rules of the game remain relatively straightforward. A team, or rink, is made up of four players, each of whom has two 20-kilogramme granite stones. These are sent up the ice towards a target known as the house, which lies some 40 metres away.

When all 16 stones have been thrown, the end is complete. A game consists of 10 ends, and usually lasts around two and half hours. A team scores points according to how many stones it has closer to the centre (the "tee") of the house than the closest stone of its opponents.

It is quite common to have a "blank end", when no stones remain in the house. An "eight end", in which one team scores with all eight of its stones, is very rare.

So much for the rules. The technical side of the game is somewhat more complicated. After my first abortive effort, I asked what I was doing wrong.

"To tell you that, I would need 10 hours," Schrenk said.

"There are thousands of little movements that have to be coordinated, otherwise, you'll never get it right," he told me. "After about 10 lessons it starts to be fun."

Curlers wear special shoes, one of which has a non-slip sole, and another that is slippery. This allows them to use the familiar sliding technique, first developed in the 1930s.

They place their non-slip shoe on a rubber "hack" at one end of the rink, and place the other on the ice, with the stone alongside. They then push themselves forward using a combination of their non-sliding leg, their bodyweight, and the momentum of the stone.

The stone must be released before the first "hog line", which lies about 10 metres from the hack. It's crucial that the player is travelling at just the right speed when this happens.

Curling is a wonderfully strategic sport. Many liken it to a combination of chess and golf. The positioning of the stones is crucial, and it is not uncommon for a team to deliberately lose an end so that it can play last in the next end.

The person who, quite literally, calls the shots is the skip. He stands in the house, instructing his teammates where to direct their stone, how much rotation to put on it, and how much brushing is required.

The sweepers brush the ice in front of the stone, to clean it, ensuring that it does not take a sudden deviation, and to make it travel further, as brushing the ice vigorously warms the ice and reduces friction. This demonstrates how curling is essentially a team game, in which all four players have to play an active role in the course of every stone.

Curling has its own specific vocabulary: the Double Take-Out, the Guard Stone, the Hit-and-Roll. But, frankly, I was several lessons away from needing to learn these terms.

Alfred Schrenk has written an extensive study on the physics of curling, and indeed, there are many factors that can affect the trajectory of the stone: its rotation, the amount of brushing, the condition of the ice, atmospheric conditions.

"I think people who are not a little bit analytical cannot play curling. The theoretical side of the game helps you to enjoy it," he said. By the time our lesson ended, I was still struggling to get the stone past the first hog line.

My first attempt at this ancient game may not have been a roaring success. But in curling, there is always room for improvement. And I am eager to give it another try.

And as I watch the best in the world on the ice in Lausanne over the coming days, I will be able to appreciate just how hard it is.

by Roy Probert


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