Curling is best described as bowling on ice, but in truth there is a lot more to it than that. Age-old tradition and the importance of the team working together mark out the winter sport as one of the most unique in the world. This year’s European championships in November take place in St Gallen in Switzerland. It is the 11th time the country has hosted the event but the first time the picturesque city of St Gallen has had the pleasure, as organizers look to spread the pursuit to other parts of the Alpine nation. The people of the Swiss German-speaking area will be treated to an official Winter Olympic sport like no other.
Curling, which emerged in medieval Scotland, revolves around sliding stones down an ice sheet and trying to make the stone stop on a target. The more central the stone stops, the more points you receive. The stones are made of granite but not just any old granite. Curling stones can only be quarried from Ailsa Craig, an island off the west coast of Scotland, and the Trefor Granite Quarry in Wales. Shades of granite include blue, pink, grey and even green. The granite is then carved into a stone with curved sides and a flat top and bottom. A handle is then fixed to the top of the stone.
But the stones are not the only equipment needed for curling. What really makes the sport stand out is the use of brooms to brush away bits of broken ice in front of the stone’s path. The harder you brush, the further the stone will travel. So although one person launches the stone (by pushing the stone with the handle and sliding on the ice on haunches before letting go), other people are involved in how far the stone goes. This makes curling a truly team sport in the way that ten-pin bowling is not.
If it all sounds quite difficult, imagine having to do it on a sheet of ice with no skates, just special shoes that give you extra grip. The brushers have to move very quickly to keep in front of the moving stone, an extremely difficult skill while also brushing furiously and trying to judge when to stop to allow the stone to come to rest. I have tried curling and it is not easy to say the least. Your hands get cold handling the cold stones and touching the freezing ice. I slipped over on the ice twice despite the special footwear and my arm really began to ache after all the brushing.
Judging how hard to push when launching the stone a lot takes a lot of practice. But it was great to get all the help from my teammates. “I love curling so much because it is a social activity. You all work together to get the stones where you want them and there is lots of friendly shouting and urging each other on,” said Canadian Freidel Robson, who taught me curling and has been playing it for 15 years. “Imagine what the noise is like at a big competition with the fans screaming too.”
The European championships, for both men and women, will be held at the Eissportzentrum Lerchenfeld (for top nations in the A Division) and the newly-built Curling Center St Gallen next door (for second-tier nations in B Division). The venues are outside the city centre.
Sweden’s men’s team are the undisputed kings of curling at present having won the last three European crowns. Among the women, Russia have clinched the last two titles. But Switzerland are no mugs when it comes to curling and the men have won the annual prize eight times and the women six. The home fans will be expecting more success at this year’s championships, adding to the atmosphere, while the fact the event is the last major tournament before the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February will make it feel even more special. “All eyes will be on St Gallen in November, as the European teams selected to represent their Member Associations at the Olympic Winter Games will go head-to-head one last time before taking to the ice at PyeongChang 2018,” World Curling Federation President Kate Caithness said in a statement.
St Gallen not only offers visitors top class curling, it also boasts an abbey which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city of some 80,000 people owes its name to the legend of an Irish monk, who wandered into the area in the Middle Ages. He fell into a thorn bush, which he believed was a sign from God that he should stay there.
Curling is hoping to add its name to the city’s fabled history.