' ' Cinema Romantico: Curling's Grand Mystery

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Curling's Grand Mystery

There is a clock in curling. It’s a lesser mentioned aspect of the winter sport, only coming into play if it begins running low on time toward the match’s end, seeing as how each team is provided seventy-three total minutes to complete a match. My mom, quoting her dad, used to say that baseball is the only game in which time does not matter. Curling having a clock would appear to counteract this sentiment, yet I would argue its having clock makes an even stronger case for time not mattering. It really comes down to the curler’s demeanor, never histrionic in the face of the forever looming big hand and little hand, tick-tocking away, reserved resolve. If we are powerless to stop time, after all, why waste it getting ourselves in a dither?

This is not to suggest curlers can’t be fiery. The fieriness, however, is never misplaced, never directed at the opponent or the judge. The most fiery they get is in the high-decibel hollers to “sweep haaaaaaaard!” That is, for their teammates to sweep the ice with their trusty brooms to speed up the stone as it slides, positive reinforcement as opposed to negative browbeating. These hollers can become so notorious that CNBC, the business cable channel hinterland to which so much of Sochi’s Curling coverage in America was relegated, had a ceaselessly airing commercial this past fortnight of its no-name stable of anchors mocking it. Sigh.

It’s an easy game to poke fun at, I suppose, with its lingo and its brooms. It’s also the sort of game you watch and arrogantly assume “I could do that”. A stone slides down a sheet of ice, a couple people sweep, and you try and get your stone closer to the center target than other guy’s stone. What’s so hard? That simplicity on the surface – and the television camera in curling is often positioned above the surface, evoking the cinematic God’s-Eye-View shot and reinforcing the idea that even the least knowledgeable spectator instantly assumes he/she is God and knows all – belies its innumerable intricacies, artistic necessities and incessant strategizing.

For instance, there are entire ends, involving eight shots apiece for each team, in which essentially nothing happens. The greatest value in curling is possession of “the hammer”, which is the opportunity to throw last in the end, and often to maintain possession of it, which can be desired for a myriad of reasons, teams will actively seek not to score. It probably sounds boring. But blank ends, as they are called, are, in an overarching sort of way, my favorite. I have a co-worker who only takes days off so she “can get things done.” I always implore her to take a day off for herself and to do nothing. She never acquiesces. The blank end resembles a day off to do nothing, and that curlers are willing to do this in the midst of an Olympic match signifies so much.

Ever since tuning into the United States’ opening Olympic curling match against Team Switzerland, I have turned coat and hitched my star to the red flag with the white cross. Being that I’m a shallow American male, this occurred on account of the Swiss vice skip, Carmen Schaefer, wholly because she sports a tongue stud and a nose ring, a sartorial merger so stunning Helen’s face would have launched two thousand ships if she’d only just pierced it in both those places. But in watching Carmen play match after match, I was eventually just as struck by her steely nonchalance. A good shot might result in the nod of her head, if that, and a bad shot would result in a “what-are-you-gonna-do?” shrug. It’s the calmness of curling, I think, to which I’m ultimately drawn. Skips holler and sweepers shred the ice, but the sport doesn’t gussy itself up. I noticed that even during ski jumping, where you might assume men and women literally flying through the air would be enough to maintain its allure, they pipe in tub-thumping music to keep your attention. Curling is content on its own sheet of ice, free of that annoying need to be liked, and that’s why I like it.

The parlor game goes like this: Is curling really a sport? This is the game because the majority of sportswriters enjoy nothing more than applying fatuous criteria to determine either x or y and NOTHING INBETWEEN BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO PICK A SIDE BECAUSE THIS IS HOW WE DO IT. I contend curling is a sport, but I’m not interested in debating that and that’s not the overriding point. There is something else going on in curling beyond your usual athletic drama, something that, at the risk of sounding vapid, I’m not certain I even understand on a conscious level. Typically I turn to sports for their endorphin rush, which I love, like the ballyhooed U.S. / Russia hockey game of one Saturday ago. Curling, on the other hand, draws you to a place where you’re aware of the stakes but still able to retain perspective, as if for upwards of 73 minutes you achieve cessation of dukkha.

There was a curling match the other day between Switzerland and Sweden. The winner would advance to the Gold Medal match, and it was fascinating because for so much of the match those stakes felt non-existent, no different from any other Swiss curling match I watched this past fortnight. The tenth and final end, however, with Switzerland down by a point was when the true situation presented itself, though not in the disposition of the curlers. Even when it's metaphorically do or die, it never emits a fatal vibe. An efficiently played game gave way to errors by everyone involved, including my beloved Carmen (she was still stoic), and it all came down to one final shot by the Swiss skip Mirjam Ott. If she made it, they would win. If she missed it, they would lose. She missed.

Carmen looked about how she looked after any of her very few wayward shots – “What-are-you-gonna-do?”. Outwardly she was gracious, shaking hands with vanquishers as curlers kindly do. I’d like nothing more than to claim her eyes betrayed her. I can’t, unfortunately, because they really didn’t. Throughout the Olympics, the camera routinely caught sight of her simply standing there post-shot, those singularly iced eyes thinking……well, I’m not sure what. Was she content? Pissed off? Accepting? Begrudgingly accepting? Indifferent? Pondering where to grab a post-match Baltika?

It’s a mystery.

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