Gone are the days when cold-weather sports heroes were moppy-haired, vape pen–hitting Colorado mountain surfers. In the winter sports hierarchy, curling has reached the top and become THE hot winter game. (Well, let’s say RELATIVELY hot.) —INGRAIN, Fall/Winter 2019
STORY / Jesse Valenciana
A newcomer to the mainstream, curling left the demonstration-event category and became an official, medal-worthy Olympic sport in 1988. (To put that into some kind of pop culture context, that was a mere five years before Ariana Grande was born.) These new cold-weather sports rock stars wear dad and mom jeans unironically and are closer to drinking a six-pack than they are to actually having one.
A ROARING GAME
Although curling may be as closely attributed to Canada as poutine and kindness, the game is actually centuries old. It dates to the 1500s, when it was known as the “roaring game” in Scotland because of the sound made when the curling stone was thrown down on the ice-covered playing surface. (Back then, there wasn’t the structure of modern-day curling; the rules didn’t come into play until the 1830s.)
Like many sports, curling was an activity born from happenstance and convenience. When swamps would freeze, bored Scottish farmers would throw channel stones down the ice. (Undocumented wild guess: probably while drinking some beers.) They came up with a few rules, and before you knew it, a new winter activity was born. The Scottish climate was ideal for the sport to thrive. Immigrants took their polished stones with them to Canada, where the first North American club was established in 1807 and is still going strong. The Scots are a traveling bunch; they introduced Sweden and Switzerland to the sport before the end of the 19th century.
Even the Loch Ness Monster has taken a back seat to this Scottish sensation; the sport is a hit in Europe and is played with equal vigor down south, from Brazil to New Zealand. The first ever curling world championship was held in 1959, and it was not a Scottish team but Canadians who were crowned the winner. Slowly but surely, like a curling stone itself, the sport was becoming more popular, growing in participation and gaining attention while positioning itself to hit its target: the international public and, more importantly, the Olympic consciousness.
ROYAL CURLING ROCK
As with anything worth discussing, curling wasn’t without its drama. Three clubs in Scotland lay claim to being the oldest: the Kinross and Kilsyth Curling Clubs (established in 1668 and 1710, respectively) and one in a small village in Perth, Muthill (1739). And yet the Royal Caledonian Curling Club (RCC), founded in 1838, carries the distinction of being the Mother Club of curling and the governing body of the sport in Scotland.*
How did the RCC skip to the front of the history timeline and end up on top of the courts? Getting a thumbs-up from the queen surely helped. Queen Victoria granted the club’s royal charter five years after the group was founded; the reigning curling newbie had seen an ice-free version of the game played on a polished ballroom floor at a royal party.
The World Curling Federation (WCF), the governing body for international curling, began as a modest committee of the RCC; the WCF formed in 1965, then gained its independence from the RCC in 1982. Today the organization teaches clubs all over the world to dream big and leave modest stone-throwing expectations elsewhere.
*One would think that sending a simple email would have cleared up any confusion and perhaps explained how time works in relation to being considered the oldest of anything. Alas, the stupid internet hadn’t been invented yet, so here we are, arguing who was first. [SHRUG]
THE CURLING OLYMPICS
Curling was on a good trajectory, albeit a slow climb, but nonetheless it was growing (somewhat) in popularity. The sport needed help to get in front of people. The first boost occurred in 1998, when CBS gave the curling competition almost a full HALF HOUR of total coverage during the Winter Olympics. Still, more was needed, either something or someone to really push the sport, a shepherd to get it to the mainstream masses. That shepherd was Peter Diamond, executive VP of programming for NBC Olympics.
One windy day in Chicago, Diamond met with USA Curling CEO (and curling shepherd in his own right) Rick Patzke, and the world of curling would never be the same. As a television executive, Diamond saw the potential of the sport (money, money!). One of the biggest draws was that curling was essentially weatherproof. Like ice hockey, curling is played indoors, so a winter storm doesn’t affect a network’s ability to cover matches. Diamond had, well, a diamond in the rough on his hands.
In 2002, when NBC took over Winter Olympics broadcasting duties, Diamond upped the coverage from a measly 28 minutes to a whopping 56 hours. “We joke and say that NBC stands for Nothing But Curling,” says Patzke. With an eye-opening 600 hours of typical coverage during an Olympic year and 300 hours in off years, it’s easy to believe.
But how do you really know the sport’s popularity is skyrocketing? Local businesses, as well as famous individuals, are getting into the action. Consider Chicago bar Kaiser Tiger, which has set up a makeshift curling rink on its outdoor patio. Though not the official dimensions, the rink nonetheless is a great way to get people interested in playing the game.
Bar owner Pat Beger says he got the idea to build a rink when folks at his other bar, Paddy Longs, were stopping by to catch the curling matches during the Winter Olympics. Paddy Longs didn’t have an outdoor patio, but he could build a rink at Kaiser Tiger. It was no easy (or cheap) task, and there are still growing pains. Even equipment like curling stones are not all that easy to find. Berger gets his from an “old Candian guy” (a tip from a former Olympic curler).
“You need ice-cooling blankets, glycol chillers [the same cooling element used for beer], and a roof to block the sun because ice hates the sun,” Berger explains. “Our busiest months are in winter, especially during the curling championships.” The games at Kaiser Tiger have become so popular, Berger had to develop an online-reservation system, an organized league, and scheduled curling watch parties.
USA Curling, still the national governing body of the sport, has more than 25,500 members. There are 44 states with active curling clubs (both privately held and publicly run). Denver currently has a 3,000-person waitlist to join its city league, and Hawaii even has a “tropical weather” curling club. (Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and West Virginia—it’s time to get your shit together.)
Patzke also speaks about a team composed of former NFL players who decided to form a curling team. In early 2018, former defensive end Jared Allen put together the All-Pro Curling Team consisting of former professional football players Marc Bulger, Keith Bulluck, and Michael Roos. How did this motley crew get into curling? Allen took up the sport after a buddy made a bet with him that he could become an Olympian. Problem was, Allen didn’t compete in any Olympic-qualifying sports (he says his wife convinced him that badminton was unrealistic). The other players had plenty to learn as well. Bullock admits that curling takes a “whole hell of a lot of work,” and Bulger still doesn’t “get how the winners have to buy the beers after a match.”
The goal of the All-Pro Curling Team isn’t just to make it to Beijing in 2020. Allen says they want to raise awareness and promote both the game and the sports community that has taken them in with open arms while, yes, shooting for the (Olympic) stars.
But what really excites Patzke most about curling? “The opportunity for expansion,” he says. “I want to get curling played in the inner cities and the southern parts of the country.” The arrow is pointing up for this 500-year-old sport, and nobody could be more optimistic than Patzke.
Turns out, curling isn’t the only beloved local misfit on the upswing. When we sat down to talk to Tremaine Atkinson, the owner of Chicago’s infamously unique liqueur, Jeppson’s Malört, he mentioned “The Judge” and curling. “When you make a bad shot or you do something stupid in the game, you have to face the judge and do a shot,” explained Atkinson. Why Malört? The liqueur has a reputation for being, ahem, somewhat of an acquired taste, so shots are a form of (fun) punishment.
Story photos: USA Curling