Techniques of the Winter Games Part 3: Sweeping to Success in Curling

Is it a sport? Is it a game? Whichever you may call it, to Olympians, curling is a sport of long standing that requires teamwork and skill.

Curling is said to have originated over 500 years ago in Scotland, when locals first began to roll large stones across the frozen lochs. According to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, curling was played by Scottish soldiers in the mid-18th century in Canada, which is currently the heart of curling – “94% of the world’s curlers live in Canada.”

Curling was a medal-sport first at the 1924 Chamonix Winter Olympics, but was recognized only as an exhibition sport until being revived as an official sport from the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

The essence of curling is the sliding of a granite stone, perfectly round, often polished to a shine, down a 45-meter long sheet of ice, known as the curling sheet. At both ends of the curling sheet are four circles in blue, white, red and yellow, which are the targets for the four players of a curling team. When your stone ends up in one of the circles at the end of a round, points are gained.

Kirsten Wall, Dawn McEwen, Jill Officer, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jennifer Jones
Canada’s women’s curling team celebrate after winning the women’s curling gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The “skip” starts the process from a crouched position, akin to a sprinter, complete with starting blocks. In contrast to a sprinter, the skip comes out of his/her crouch as if uncoiling in slow motion, and then freezing in a deeper crouch as the skip releases the rock. As the granite stone begins its silent glide down the curling sheet, the fury begins. Two of the skip’s teammates then track the stone, applying considerable force on the ice with a broom. By scratching across the ice with a broom, the “sweepers” are clearing frost or debris, and heating up the ice so that the stone can ride more smoothly upon a watery, slicker surface. By sweeping or not sweeping, the players with the brooms can lengthen or shorten the distance traveled by or the direction of the stone.

Sweeping is seen as critical in impacting the outcome of a competition, thus affecting the type of broom used. In the past, curling competitors used corn brooms. As you can see at the end of this video on sweeping, and clearing a path with a corn broom is dramatic as it requires bigger movements. In recent decades, the broom sticks have been upgraded to carbon fiber, making them very light, and the brushes are now synthetic and more effective in creating friction on the ice. The synthetic brush allows the player to be more efficient with their sweeping movements, but still considerable arm and core strength, as well as good flexibility are required to ensure the stone ends up where you want it to go.

Here’s a video primer on sweeping.