GANGNEUNG, South Korea– The world, some fret, is falling apart. Politicians spar viciously on social media. Leaders lie. Former heroes fall like dominoes amid endless scandals. Cruelty has come to feel commonplace.
But never fear: We have curling.
The sport with the frenzied sweeping and clacking rocks has rules that literally require players to treat opponents with kindness. Referees aren’t needed, because curlers police themselves. And the winners generally buy the losers a beer.
At the Pyeongchang Olympics, curlers and their fans agree: In an era of vitriol and venom, curling may be the perfect antidote to our troubled times.
“Nobody gets hit – other than the rock,” laughed Evelyne Martens of Calgary, Canada, as she watched a recent Canada vs. Norway curling match. “And there’s nothing about Trump here!”
In the 500 years since curling was conceived on the frozen ponds of Scotland, it has remained largely immune to the cheating controversies and bloated egos common in other sports. This is thanks to what is known as “The Spirit of Curling,” a deeply ingrained ethos that dictates that curlers conduct themselves with honor and adhere to good sportsmanship.
The World Curling Federation’s rules state: “Curlers play to win, but never to humble their opponents. A true curler never attempts to distract opponents, nor to prevent them from playing their best, and would prefer to lose rather than to win unfairly.”
Kindness is the baseline for what curling is all about, says Canadian Kaitlyn Lawes, who won the gold medal this week in curling mixed doubles.
“We shake hands before the game, we shake hands after. And if someone makes a great shot against you, we congratulate them because it’s fun to play against teams that are playing well,” Lawes says. “I think that spirit of curling can be used in the real world – and hopefully it can be a better place.”
Case in point: After losing the curling mixed doubles gold medal to Canada, Switzerland’s Martin Rios swallowed his disappointment during a press conference to say that the Canadians had deserved to win, declaring: “They were the better team.”
The Canadians returned the favor by heartily applauding their Swiss opponents not once but twice. And before the women’s round-robin match Thursday, the Korean team presented their Canadian competitors with a gift bag of Korean curling banners and pins.
Children new to the sport are coached about the spirit of curling from the very start, says Willie Nicoll, chairman of British Curling. That’s because fair play is not an afterthought, he says. It is the heart of the game.
“It’s always been looked at as being a very gentlemanly sport,” says Kate Caithness, President of the World Curling Federation. “Where does that happen in sport, when you say to your opposition, ‘Good shot?“’
It’s not that curling isn’t competitive. Like every other Olympian in Pyeongchang, curlers all want the gold – just not at the expense of their integrity.
Perhaps the best example of this is the lack of referees. Officials rarely get involved in matches because players call themselves out for fouls. If a curler accidentally hits a stone that’s in motion with their foot or broom – a situation known as a “burned stone” – he or she is expected to immediately announce the mistake. Aileen Geving, a member of the U.S. Olympic curling team, says it would be unthinkable for her not to own up to such a goof.
“We all have to be true to ourselves and I know I would feel way too guilty not to say anything if I hit it!” she says, laughing. “I think there’s a certain morality behind that.”
On Friday, an exceedingly unusual controversy over a burned stone erupted that – unsurprisingly – meandered its way to a mild end. In a tense match against Canada, a Danish player accidentally hit a moving rock. Canada, which had the right to decide what happened, chose to remove the rock from play rather than allow it to remain.
The “aggression” stunned some observers. Canadian media covering the game launched into frenzied discussions, and some curling fans tweeted shock over what they considered unsportsmanlike behavior.
This, though, was the measured reaction from the Danish team’s skip a bit later: She wouldn’t have made the same choice, but she also wasn’t mad.
For the fans, seeing such displays of warmth – or, in the above case, lack of heat – can be a welcome respite from the harshness of the outside world.
Sinking into her seat at the Gangneung Curling Centre, Crystle Kozoroski was still stressed from attending the previous night’s rough and rowdy hockey game. Watching curling, she said, was just the therapy she needed.
“I’m still tense from last night’s game – my body is literally sore,” said Kozoroski, of Manitoba, Canada. “It’s nice just to sit and relax.” Curling is, she says, a “very calming and soothing sport.”
(So calming and soothing, it should be noted, that a group of Korean fans with a front-row seat to the action during a recent match managed to squeeze in a nap.)
Here is how a typical game starts at Gangneung: Opponents turn to each other, share a handshake and wish each other “Good curling!” A bouncy organ tune blasts across the arena and the stadium announcer cheerfully bellows, “Good luck and GOOD CURLING!” The crowd whoops with glee. Even if you have no idea what is happening, it is almost impossible not to smile.
There’s a sense that everyone is welcome. And with curling, that’s kind of true. Both women and men compete in all three versions of the sport – traditional curling, mixed doubles and wheelchair – and members of curling clubs range in age from 7 to 90.
That feeling of inclusiveness is intertwined with a deep camaraderie that goes back to curling’s inception. Take “broomstacking,” named for the original practice of opponents stacking their brooms in front of a roaring fire after a game and enjoying a drink together.
These days, rivals still socialize after matches, with the winner generally buying the loser a round. The other day, Canadian gold medal curler John Morris posted a photo on Instagram of himself sharing a locker room brew with U.S. rival Matt Hamilton, their arms slung around each other and grins stretching across their faces.
Given how small the curling community is, such friendships between opponents are as common as they are treasured.
“Everybody knows everybody and while we’re competitors on the ice, off the ice we’re all really good friends,” says U.S. Olympic curler Cory Christensen.
Mae Polo, whose son Joe Polo is a member of the U.S. Olympic curling team, says she and her family have formed tight bonds with curlers across the globe. Those friendships have traversed any competitive or cultural divides, she says, with the curlers’ families all helping each other sort out travel logistics to the Olympics.
Curling is one big family, she says. And maybe, just maybe, curling could serve as a blueprint for us all.
“The world needs to take a lesson from it,” she says. “Let’s just love each other.”