Five-ring Circus

They Need to Curl Faster

A curler prepares to throw a rock while two teammates stand beside him.
Curl faster!!! Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Curling is great. I love checking in on the sport every four years. It’s fun and strategic and it absolutely ranks in the top half of Winter Olympics sports. (Yes, I am aware that in 2018 I ranked it in the bottom half of Winter Olympics sports. Opinions evolve!) But it could rank near the very top if they’d make one simple fix: They need to curl faster.

I’ve watched as much curling as I can during the Beijing Games, but there’s only so much curling that I or anyone else can watch, because curling matches are very long. A single match can last for three hours, and much of that time consists of curlers crouching and squinting and yelling at each other across the ice. In the curling world, this is known as “thinking time,” and there is too much of it: 38 minutes per team per match.

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The strategic element of curling is a big part of what makes it great. It’s why the sport is sometimes referred to as “chess on ice.” Do you know what else takes a really long time? Chess matches. Do you know what the fix is for that? Fast chess, in all kinds of formats: rapid, blitz, bullet, Armageddon. And also, do you know what sport is known for dragging out the longest? Cricket. And do you know what they did to make cricket more popular? Invented a much speedier version.

I repeat: They need to curl faster.

Before you deem me a “heretic” yet again, please know that curling is already a land of contrasts. There is not one single agreed-upon format for the sport. When it debuted at the Olympics in 1924, the matches were 18 ends each. (An “end” is the curling equivalent of a baseball inning.) People were so appalled by this that curling got omitted from the Olympic programme for 74 years. When it returned in 1998, matches had been reduced to a mere 10 ends. Even today, though, curling pundits disagree on whether that’s the correct number. Eight-end matches take less time, and are thought to give underdogs a better chance at victory. Mixed doubles curling, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, consists of only eight ends, with 12 stones per end (rather than the standard 16) and a mere 22 minutes of thinking time per team per match.

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In my opinion, all of this debate about the number of ends and stones gets the issue entirely wrong. I don’t want less curling. I want the exact same amount, faster.

In a standard Olympic curling match, each of the 10 ends takes around 15 minutes to finish. There’s a one-minute break when an end gets completed, except for after the fifth, when there’s a five-minute break. Each team also gets a single one-minute timeout per match. Add it all up and a 10-end curling match takes around two hours and 45 minutes. That’s only four minutes shorter than Saving Private Ryan! If they could fit all of Saving Private Ryan into two hours and 49 minutes, then they could certainly fit an entire curling match into, say, 90 minutes.

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How would curling change if some madman—i.e., me—imposed a strict time limit? I posed this question to Tyler George, who vice-skipped the U.S. curling squad that won gold in Pyeongchang in 2018 and is now an analyst for NBC’s Beijing curling coverage.

“It would be a mad dash,” he told me via Twitter direct message. “This is essentially chess on ice (a much more physically demanding one than people realize), so having to call shots that quickly would REALLY put pressure on players and cause a lot of misses/unforced errors. And panic (that part would be fun to watch but not to experience).”

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First: What did I tell you about that “chess on ice” thing? Second: Panic and pressure are indeed super fun to watch. That’s one of the main reasons they need to curl faster.

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While forcing curlers to curl at breakneck speed makes a lot of sense to me, I am also aware that I know nothing about curling. So, I asked George directly: How dumb of an idea is Fast Curling?

“I don’t think it’s remotely dumb from a marketing standpoint,” he said. “Would it be a gimmicky version of the sport? Absolutely. But would a fast paced, frantic version of curling be entertaining and great for television? I’d say yes.”

So, there you have it: an Olympic endorsement.

Not everyone agrees with us. In a February 2021 article in the Curling News, Kevin Palmer declared that he was “not in the camp of fundamentally changing a sport to benefit those who only watch it every four years.” And when I asked curling analytics guru Gerry Geurts how curling might change if each match were to be limited to 90 minutes, he said that “90 minutes isn’t possible.” Fair enough! What about if we were to impose a two-hour time limit? “There would be no time to talk about strategy, it would just be shot after shot,” he told me. Sounds like fun!

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Would curling become a completely different sport if they curled faster? There would be a lot less “thinking time,” and thus a lot less time crouching and squinting—and, as George noted, there would be a lot more time spent panicking. But I think the sport would require just as much strategy as it does now. It would just be a different kind of strategy. “You’d really have to play with pace on simple shots/decisions early in the end to bank time for any situations that involve making important calls,” George speculated. “You still wouldn’t be able to talk nearly as much as in a regular game, and you’d definitely have calls that are rushed and second-guess them afterwards.”

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Curling faster would require thinking faster. Curlers would have to rely on their first instincts, as opposed to their third or their 27th. George suggested that, in Fast Curling, it might make sense to give teams a few more timeouts. I’d allow that. I’d also be willing to allow them two minutes off between ends instead of one, so they could catch their breath. These are all compromises I’d be willing to make if they’d just curl faster.

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I’m not saying that we should get rid of traditional curling. I’d never say that. Curling is great, and I was very wrong when I ranked it below both biathlon and bobsled. I’m just saying that it would be even greater if there were a version in which they curled faster.

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Geurts, the analytics expert, suggested that the World Curling Federation might actually take my side. He speculated that the federation could move toward timed ends, where the teams would get allotted between four and four-and-a-half minutes each. This sounds like a great first step on the road toward Fast Curling.

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Fast Curling would be a ratings bonanza. It would draw new audiences to the sport, and it would make it more likely that those audiences would stick around to watch an entire match. You could promote the sport with a bunch of new slogans, like “Fast Curling: It’s Curling, Only Faster,” or “Fast Curling: Now It Takes Much Less Time Than Saving Private Ryan,” or “Fast Curling: Not the Sort of Fast Where You Don’t Eat.” If that last slogan catches on, we could probably get Tim Horton’s as a sponsor, which would push Fast Curling over the top. From there, millions of people would take up curling themselves, which would precipitate a new Golden Age. All of these good things would happen, and more, if they would just curl faster.

Also, there should be only one broom.

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