How curling works – Sochi Olympics Viewers' Guide

Fourth-Place Medal
How curling works – Sochi Olympics Viewers' Guide
How curling works – Sochi Olympics Viewers' Guide


Curling, which first became an organized sport in Scotland, traces its roots to the 1500s. Historians say paintings from the time depict people sliding rocks across frozen ponds. It took a few centuries for the world to appreciate all that feverish sweeping, though: Curling made its Olympic debut in 1924 — but didn’t return as an official competitive event until the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

Chances are if you didn’t grow up in Canada (where curling is most popular), you may think of the sport as people in funny pants — we’re lookin’ at you, Norwegians —pushing an oversized puck across a skating rink. Au contraire. Curling requires finesse, strategy and serious athleticism — the sweeping can burn up to 500 calories per hour, according to NPR. And because players use their brains as much as their bodies, people call it “chess on ice.”

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[ Related: Canadian curlers ready to rock Sochi ]

Allow the USA Women's team to demonstrate. In animal garb:


For starters, players aim to guide heavy, granite stones across a sheet of textured ice toward a target area called the house that is split into four rings. (Consider curling a distant cousin of shuffleboard.) Two teams, each with four players, take turns sliding the stones — also called “rocks” —toward the target. Each team has eight stones per end, which is curling's version of, say, a baseball inning. There are 10 ends in a tournament-style game.

Need a visual? Here are the ice dimensions from the World Curling Federation.

The stone weighs 38 to 44 pounds. Players use brooms to smooth the ice and ease the stone’s path toward the house. If a player breaks a rule — like nudging the stone with their shoe — they should be “the first to divulge the breach,” according to the WCF. This sportsmanship expectation is part of what players call “the spirit of curling.”

[ Related: Rules of curling in the Winter Olympics ]

The objective is simple: The team that lands the most stones closest to the bulls-eye wins.
Players win a point for every stone that 1) lands in the house and 2) is closer to the “button” — or center of the house — than the closest opponent stone. (For example, if Team A has the closest stone and Team B has the second closest stone, Team A can only earn one point, even if the rest of Team B's stones somehow ended up outside of the curling arena.) Teams can knock an opponent’s stone away from the house — and, through some vigorous sweeping, strategically place some stones as makeshift shields (guards) to protect others. 

It is impossible, however, for both teams to score in an end, which last the amout of time it takes to throw all of the stones. Points are awarded only to the team that did better in each end. (Should a team tie, there are tie-breaker rounds.) The best possible score in an end is 8-0, which happens when one team gets all eight stones closer to the button than its opponent. This is called a “snowman” — curling slang for a perfect game.

Fun fact: Curling may be the nicest sport of all.

Objectively. After each game, the winners traditionally buy the other team a round of drinks. From the WCF website: “Curlers play to win, but never to humble their opponents. A true curler never attempts to distract opponents, nor to prevent them from playing their best, and would prefer to lose rather than to win unfairly.”

Quick terminology:

Bonspiel: A curling tournament.
Circles: The round scoring area, 12 feet in diameter, with concentric circles 1, 4, and 8 feet in diameter. Curl: The rotating movement of a stone caused by turning the handle.
Delivery: The act of throwing a rock.
End: Similar to an inning in baseball; in an end, each team throws 8 rocks, 2 per player in alternating fashion. Tournament-style games run for 10 ends.
Front End: The lead and second player on a curling team.
Heavy: A stone that is delivered with more than the desired amount of weight or force.
House: The round scoring area, 12 feet in diameter, with concentric circles 1, 4, and 8 feet in diameter. Light: A stone that is delivered with less than the desired weight or force.
Rink: A curling team that consists of four players: the skip, third (vice-skip), second, and lead. Also refers to the place where curling is played.
Rock: Stone.
Sheet: The 146-foot-long area of the ice on which the game is played.
Skip: The player who calls the ice and determines the strategy. Almost always plays the last two rocks for his team (but may throw in a different order in some games.)
Sweeping: Using a brush to polish the ice in an effort to alter the action of the rock.
Check out the complete list from the World Curling Federation here.

More Sochi Olympics Viewers' Guides: Nordic combined - Ice dancing - Women's ski jumping - Biathlon - Slopestyle snowboarding

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