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.

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DAVID AND RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH - 2001
Richard and David Attenborough, 2001; photo by N Cunard/REX (336048j)

 

His older brother, Sir Richard Attenborough was known for playing iconic roles in blockbuster films, like Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett in The Great Escape, or John Hammond in Jurassic Park. But Sir David Attenborough is known for the iconic voice of nature films, that lilting, authoritative tone which brings a cheeky gravitas to the serious drama and dramatic silliness of all creatures great and small.

As a teaser to promote the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Attenborough was brought on board by the BBC to provide a cultural anthropological assessment of the ice-bound homo sapien known as the “curler”.

Click on the video below to see nature and all its rituals, as if you are a fly on a barren tree in the frozen tundra.

Our planet, the earth, as we know it, is unique. It contains life even in its most barren stretches. In all my years of exploration, these are the creatures I find most curious. For the first time ever, filmed over the course of three afternoons in deepest Russia, using the world’s most state-of-the-art cameras, this…is…curling.

Here we have a pack of sliding curlers. Watch as the Alpha female displays her dominance over the herd by tapping the end of the frisking broom to check for rogue insects. This is a precise exercise. Off she goes, gently but flamboyantly launching the oversized walnut down the frozen river. The Alpha female’s job is now complete. It’s down to the herd to frantically follow the walnut down the river, gently frisking the foreground.

Past the red line the walnut goes. This is nature at its most vulnerable. You’ll notice a group of other walnuts are already near the flat, round nest. These are from other sliding curlers who thrust their nuts down earlier. This is to mark their territory. The aim of this ritual is to land your walnut in the center of the nest. The frisking is frantic and often futile, making no difference to the success of the net thrust. But it’s playful and all part of what makes this game the sliding curlers play so magical. Look how happy it makes them!

To see an authentic narration by Sir David Attenborough, watch this fascinating clip called “Flight of the Dung Beetle”.

Kristie Moore five months pregnant
Kristie Moore of Canada who competed at the Vancouver Olympics while 5-month pregnant.
Health officials in several countries stricken by the Zika virus have given their female citizens an unprecedented warning: “Don’t get pregnant.”

That’s the first line of this New York Times report, the advice that basically assumes a possible connection between the Zika virus in pregnant women and deformities to their children.

I can only imagine what women planning on visiting areas like South America, or female athletes planning to compete in Rio this August are thinking. Should I stay or should I go? If you are pregnant, and planning on going to the Rio Olympics with your family, you may want to reconsider your decision. Of course, no athlete would go to the Olympics if they were pregnant.

But apparently, that is a naïve assumption, for there have been quite a few known cases where women athletes were 1 to 3 months pregnant, and were not aware until after the Games. But three in this list of pregnant Olympians were at least five months pregnant when they competed:

  • Kristie Moore of Canada, who won a silver medal in curling at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics,
  • Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands, who won a gold medal in individual dressage at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
  • Cornelia Pfohl of Germany who had been in early pregnancy when she won bronze in team archery at the 2000 Sydney Games, but was an amazing 7 months pregnant when she competed at the 2004 Athens Games.

Anky van Grunsven Athens
Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands competed while 5 months pregnant at the 2004 Olympics.
Van Grunsven in particular has had a stellar Olympic career, winning a total of 8 equestrian medals, including three golds in individual dressage, over six Olympics, from 1992 to 2012. In November, 2004, only three months removed from the end of the Athens Games, she gave birth to her first son, Yannick.

Clearly, the Zika Virus should be giving women, who are pregnant, pause. But the Olympics come only once every four years. Who knows what stories Rio will bring.