I’ve never liked flying, and a few years ago, I started getting terrible anxiety attacks every time I stepped on a plane. I would eventually discover the magic of benzos, but in the meantime, for want of a pharmaceutical solution, I turned to the next best thing: The Great British Bake Off. If there’s one thing that can take your mind off the fact that you’re locked in a metal tube where a series of small mistakes could send you plummeting 35,000 feet to your death, it’s the soothing sound of Mary Berry cooing about scones. Now, whenever I need a bit of televisual Klonopin, I turn on an old episode of Bake Off and am transported to a world of rosy-cheeked ciabatta enthusiasts, where everyone is just doing their best, no one raises their voice, and the worst thing that can happen is the dreaded “soggy bottom.”
In the years since, I’ve often tried to replicate that warm Bake Off feeling, to little success. The Crown has the British accents and the slumbering pace, but it doesn’t share the same sense of levity; like the butter in a poorly made sponge cake, it’s too cold. Other reality shows are like a novice baker making their first meat pie — they try to sprinkle just 17 minutes of content into a 42-minute episode. But luckily, every four years a perfect substitute comes around, when the Winter Olympics bring us the Great British Bake Off of sports. That’s right: I’m talking about curling.
I first became obsessed with the sport back in 2006, when I developed a crush on every single member of the U.S. women’s curling team. But as enthralled as I was with these athletes, seemingly all of whom hailed from one tiny town in Minnesota, I was equally fascinated with the sport, a strange mix of shuffleboard, bowling, and chores. Everything I knew about curling had come from that one scene in Help!, which didn’t, well, help, since real Olympic curling features very few assassination attempts on Liverpudlian rock stars. However, every Winter Games I manage to pick up a basic working knowledge of the sport, which I promptly forget once the Games are done. Since you’ve caught me at a good time, here’s a primer.
Where other Winter Olympic sports are about who can go the fastest while wearing knives on their feet, curling is a cozier affair. The goal is to send big rocks that look like teakettles (“stones”) down a patch of ice toward a target (“the house”). Each team alternates shots, trying to either get their stone close to the center of the target (“the button”) or knock the other team’s stones away. Once all the stones have been thrown, the team with the stone closest to the button (“the shot rock”) gets one point, and then an additional point for every one they’ve got that’s closer than the opposing team’s closest stone. Going last (“throwing the hammer”) is very important, so the team that didn’t score any points in the previous frame (“end”) gets to throw the hammer in the next one; earning points in an end when your opponent threw last is sort of like breaking a serve in tennis. According to the announcers, sweeping the ice in front of a stone makes it travel in a straight line, while refraining from doing so makes it curve. I take them at their word.
But to be honest, you don’t really need to know any of this to get a lot out of curling. What makes Olympic curling so great to watch on TV — and the thing it has most in common with Bake Off — are the tranquilizing rhythms of the sport. The way competitors glide smoothly across the ice. The elegant curve of a well-thrown stone. The satisfying plonk as one stone collides with another. Games last over an hour, and the sum of the experience is not unlike Scandinavian slow TV. Indeed, Scandinavia usually does well in curling; Sweden has medaled six times, tied with Switzerland for second place in the number of all-time medals. (Canada, which just won the mixed-doubles tournament, is on top, having medaled in every Olympics since curling was reintroduced at Nagano in 1998.) And unlike many other sports, curling rarely has to stop play for a gruesome injury, though of course accidents do happen.
As in Bake Off, everyone in curling seems to get along. Unless it’s very close, teams do their own spotting, and competitors usually seem to operate in good faith. When the Swiss mixed-doubles team fell behind 10-3 in the gold-medal match, they graciously conceded to the Canadians instead of trying for a desperate comeback, which might have introduced a little too much drama into the proceedings. Even a near-miss broom accident during a USA-China game only resulted in some affectionate ribbing. The most controversial curling story at Pyeongchang so far is American team member Tyler George’s terrible shoes.
Mixed-doubles curling was new this year, and though not everyone was a fan, I dug it. As with any mixed-doubles event, you can usually see a frisson of romantic subtext if you want to, although in this case, curlers are cosplaying not as lovers in the heights of passion, as ice skaters do, but as a long-married couple jointly tackling some major home-improvement task. (“A little more to the left!”) Unfortunately you couldn’t do this with the American duo Matt and Becca Hamilton, who are brother and sister, and, in a feat that’s rare this Olympics, act like it. (Everyone else thinks Matt Hamilton looks like Mario but I think he looks like Chris Pratt playing Daryl from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.)
Mixed-doubles curling wrapped up on Tuesday, but the team tournament is just getting started, so there’s still plenty of time to get into curling. So tune in, turn on, and let these assorted Scandinavians, Canadians, and good-hearted Midwesterners lull you into a dull relaxation. It’ll give a whole new meaning to the term “sweeps week.”