Curling Is the Closest the Olympics Ever Get to Anarchy

The culture of curling rejects appeals to authority and encourages civility even in the midst of intense competition. That's a lesson for American politics.



Until the American men made a shocking run to the gold medal final, one of the biggest surprises of the Olympic curling tournament was a tiff between the Canadian and Danish women's teams that was over so fast non-curlers might have missed it entirely.

That brief moment summed up one of the best things about the game that, once every four years, captures Americans' attentions for two short weeks. And maybe it offers a lesson for American politics too.

Curling is a game where teams of four players slide 42-pound granite stones along a 150-foot sheet of ice, aiming for the center of a large target painted on the ice. Players use brooms to sweep in front of sliding stones to make the rocks travel farther. After all 16 rocks have been thrown, the one that's closest to the center of the target scores. That's one "end." After 10 ends, the team with the most points wins.

The Canada-Denmark controversy occurred in the fifth end of their match last week. Danish "skip" (captain) Madeleine Dupont was sweeping one of her own team's rocks as it slid to a stop inside the house (target). At the very end of the shot, her broom contacted the rock—a fact that she immediately admitted to her Canadian counterpart, Rachel Homan.

In the parlance of the game, this is called "burning" a rock. When a rock is burned, the skip of the other team—in this case, Homan—has three options. She could choose to leave all the rocks exactly where they are, like declining a penalty in football. She could choose to remove the burned rock from play. Or she could choose to move the burned rock (and any rocks it might have hit after it was burned) to where she, and the opposing skip, mutually agree it would have ended up without having been touched.

On this particular shot, the burned rock had nearly stopped before it was touched. The touch likely made only the smallest of changes in the outcome of the shot. In those circumstances, traditionally, the skips will either leave the shot where it stopped or make small adjustments to the rocks and continuing playing. Taking the rock off the sheet, while legal, is frowned upon as bad sportsmanship (and bad strategy, since everyone burns rocks once in a while, and all skips want the benefit of the doubt when it happens to them).

But that's exactly what Homan did. She yanked the burned rock off the sheet, and lined up her team's next shot while Dupont gave a disapproving look and slight shake of the head. That's all.

Well, not all. Commentators noticed what had happened. "I think that was a rash move to take it off," said Joan McCusker, an Olympic gold medalist who was calling the game for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. "They should have left it in play. It doesn't look good on you." Homan's unsportsmanlike move rankled curling fans from Alberta to Winnipeg, and older curlers dutifully stepped up to blame the younger generation for ruining the spirit of the sport.

Still, maybe the most notable thing about the entire incident is what didn't happen. There were no referees blowing whistles, no instant replay reviews from six different angles. There was no appeal to authority of any kind, not even by the Danish skip who felt, well, burned by what had happened (though Denmark rallied to win the game, 9-8).

Curling is a sport that, more so than almost any other, is played in a state of anarchy.

That's not to say that curling doesn't have rules, of course. The length of the sheet, the size and weight of the rocks, and the method for scoring are standardized. Players aren't allowed to touch the rocks with their brooms. Sliding past the "hog line" before releasing a shot is forbidden.

But it is a game with very little in the way of law enforcement, even in games played at the highest competitive levels. This makes curling quite an outlier at the Olympics, where every sport has judges determining winners and losers based on a scoring rubric that no one really understand, or referees calling fouls and penalties, or officials making sure everyone completes the same course without going out of bounds.

Curling officials are relegated almost entirely to an appellate role. If the two teams really cannot agree on which stone might score in a given end, for example, officials can be called upon to conduct a measurement. This is a relatively rare event. Otherwise, scoring is entirely the responsibility of the two "vice-skips" (the second-in-command on each team), and any other disagreements—like where a burned rock should be placed—are settled between the skips.

The lack of referees and judges requires that, above all else, curlers must be good sports. The first page of the official rulebook doesn't describe the size of the rocks or the length of the sheet or the method of scoring. It talks about "the spirit of curling." That might sound a little hokey in our cynical age, but it's actually one of the things that makes the game so much damn fun. A "call your own fouls" mentally is not unexpected in pick-up basketball game or rec center softball leagues, but it is pretty unusual to see at the Olympics.

At the risk of straining the analogy too far, the culture of curling offers a few lessons for an American political culture that has become toxic in so many ways.

Like curling, politics is a sport that requires players to call their own fouls and meet out the proper repercussions for them. Before that, though, both require good sportsmanship, and a mutual expectation that both sides will respect the unwritten rules of the game.

That doesn't require agreement or cooperation, of course. Opposing skips in a curling match are not working towards a common goal. They won't help sweep each others' stones (or whatever the curling equivalent of empty cheers for bipartisanship would be). They are both trying to win the game, but competition doesn't require tossing sportsmanship or civility out the window. This idea of civilized rivalries—of ambition counteracting ambition, without any need for a higher authority to restrain it—is a fundamental element of the American political system.

Like curling's somewhat nuanced rules about what to do with a burned rock, political discourse is not a black-and-white affair. Too often, I think, we behave like Homan did last week. If our opponents make a minor mistake, we want to pounce on the opportunity to gain a temporary advantage by yanking their stone out of play (or making a mockery of them on social media). The short-term gain is offset by a decline in respect and an increased likelihood of reprisals. Winning matters, but how you win matters too.

Maybe we flock to curling every four years not because of the hypnotic motion of the stones across the ice or the excitement of a perfectly executed hit-and-roll, but because the game is a reminder that even diametrically opposed teams can disagree and get along without having to be told what to do.

Maybe that's all a bunch of nonsense and I'm still high from watching the U.S. team upset Canada to reach the final round.

Still, the most important part of the "culture of curling" is the expectation that a winning team will buy a round of drinks for the losing team (yes, even at the Olympics!)—a good reminder that no dispute is so big it can't be settled over a beer.

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  1. Curling is hot!

    1. Too bad her medal got stripped because her mixed doubles partner was juicing.

      1. That’s a drag.

      2. lol wut? In curling?

  2. The word anarchy comes from the ancient Greek ??????? (anarchia), which combines ? (a), “not, without” and ???? (arkhi), “ruler, leader, authority.” Thus, the term refers to a person or society “without rulers” or “without leaders”

    There are leaders, there are rules, there are negotiated agreements. I would not call it anarchy at all.

    1. The absence of a ruler doesn’t at all imply the absence of generally accepted rules, or prevent free agents from negotiating agreements among themselves.

      1. What would you know about anarchy? I’ll bet you’ve never thrown a cement block through a bank window or bombed some building just because.

        1. I don’t see either of those actions contained in the root words of a dead language.

          1. Citizen X’s idea of bombing a building amounts to refusing a courtesy flush.

            1. That MONSTER!

            2. Look, i’ll flush when and as many times as I want to.

  3. Such a system requires the participants conduct themselves with honor and integrity. It requires not trying to game the rules when you have an advantage. Not violating the rules and hoping no one notices. It requires calm, civil discussion that does not presume your opponent is irrational or evil.

    1. “Of course i would prefer to be in anarchy, but then we’d all have to act like adults, wouldn’t we” – the King of Brunch

      1. Adulthood is disappearing, and so is childhood.
        Adolescence reigns supreme.

    2. Pretty much. Which is why people on the left insist the everything be governed with rules that are backed up with real threats of violence. Because leftists are incapable of honor, integrity, not gaming the system, not violating the rules, or engaging in civil discussion.

      They are unable to act like adults.

      1. I would not characterize it as “unable”, but unwilling, because gaming the rules has been too valuable a tactic for them. Unfortunately our political culture as a whole does not value honor. That includes Republicans and libertarians. And for a more anarchic system to work, every side has to value honor more than momentary advantage. That means no bad faith arguments. That means minimal rules, but not ignoring them if you don’t like the result.

        1. I would say that they are unable. People on the left are governed solely by emotion. They are incapable of rationality. Which makes honor and good faith arguments an impossibility.

          1. Oh, please. Don’t pretend like the right is some bastion of logic, particularly in the Age of Trump. Both ends of the spectrum are equally emotional, though usually about different topics.

  4. Hate to break it to you but those aren’t zambonies – they are WOODCHIPPERS. That’s how they handle disputes in curling. Rarely used, but very effective!

  5. Great article. I enjoyed it immensely.

    1. I read the headline and figured it would be silly and insane. I was pleasantly surprised.

  6. You’re really growing on me, Eric. You may be my favori

    I’m still high from watching the U.S. team upset Canada to reach the final round.

    Never mind.

    1. Sorry to hear that Eric upset you by smoking meth while watching the Olympics. Thought we we’re all libertarians here, ya damn lefty.

      1. Eric was religiously counting the number of individual sweeps.

        1. He also thought they were killing spiders.

  7. The sweeping reminded me of this video.

  8. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such bad curling by Canada for both the men and women. It’s a sport they hold a net dominance in and they curled to make us hurl.

    Homan’s action was indicative of the poor play overall. She was in a bit of a panic I think and that’s just a pure guess on my part.

    Homan in particular just won the World Championships. They just weren’t in the game.

    Weird Olympics for Canada. We flopped in hockey and curling this time.

    1. Curling is literally the only thing Canada is good for. If you guys want to pack it in, we’ll make a good offer on Vancouver Island.

      1. With this buffoon as PM, you’d probably pull it off too.

        1. If you decline your opponent offer, they win.

        2. Not criticizing, but is there a reason you frequent a libertarian site? Is there a similar movement in Canada, or do you guys just not want us to self-destruct and blast shrapnel in your direction?

          1. What is it lately with these guys lately asking me why I’m here?

            Not that I owe you an explanation, but have been around here for years and give to Reason because your stupid left-wing shit always ends up here and I have a vested interest in supporting publications like Reason?


            1. Yeah, I was just curious.

              1. Good.

                Now drop and give me 50.

                1. Rufus is pretty sassy for a Canuck.

                  1. I’m sure he apologized verbally after posting that comment, then took a shot of maple syrup.

                    1. Good name for an all Canadian gay gang-bang flick.

                    2. I am sure you’ve seen it several times, BUCS. But have you seen the sequel, which had an all Asian cast? It was called “Sour-y Train.”

                2. Only 19.6 push ups?

                  1. Fortunately for silver., the current exchange rate means that Canadian sass is 15% less hurtful than American sass.

            2. What is it lately with these guys lately asking me why I’m here?

              Didn’t you hear? Apparently it’s now illegal for dirty furrinners to comment on American politics because you might end up “undermining democracy” or some shit.

  9. The Olympics has too much curling.

    But I admit I prefer the “let them race” of snowcross to short track skating where contestants are constantly DQ or elevated by judges.

    I saw a Relay race where one skater, after tagging, fell down and took out two opponents, giving a clear advantage to her team. That was no big deal, but some other trivial BS got called. They eliminated 1/2 the finalists and had to give a bronze to a team from the B final. Fcking ridiculous.

    1. Added weirdness in that relay is that the team from the B final set a new world record in that race, but only got bronze behind two slower teams from the A final.

      1. That is not weird at all. It is because short track races are head to head not against the clock. Part of the sport is conserving effort and drafting your opponents until you nake your move. It all depends on how each race develops.

        1. Then why track record times?

          1. Because sports love statistics.

  10. And let’s pile on with the bizarre OAR. Yeh, let’s pretend they’re not ‘Russian’.

    1. That was merely a misbegotten attempt by the IOC to separate the athletes from Mother Russia in the doping scandal, and it didn’t even work very well. Either ban the Russians en bloc or let Russia in and monitor them more closely.

  11. Curling is somehow the one sport(activity? game?) I’ve watched the most of this year.

    I have yet to see an official do anything. There was one game where they thought about calling an official to measure, but after a minute or two the competitors mutually agreed on the outcome and play moved on.

    1. It’s amazing to see people cooperating without a government gun pinned between their shoulder blades.

    2. That’s because the first one to call a ref has to buy the beer.

    3. I haven’t watched any Olympics but every time I pass a TV set in public, they’re showing curling.

    4. The person who does the measuring is not an official. She or he simply informs the teams which stone creates the most pressure on the measuring device. It is still up to the skips to agree that the stone is closest to the button. If a curler passes the hog line before releasing the stone that is revealed by a sensor light or, in more regular venues, it too is self-reported.

      The key to all this is that curling is a sport played by a very small community in which standards like honesty, integrity and honor are glues that hold the community together. It sounds weird to big-city folk because we have long since abandoned that kind of life. But for those of us who still live in smaller communities, where we know our neighbors and greet strangers as we pass on the street, it isn’t all that mysterious. It’s how you live when you depend on each other.

    5. Just to be clear, there are no officials (referees or umpires) in curling. No whistles, no penalties called by some guy in stripes, no do-overs. The game belongs to the players even when the measuring stick comes out.

  12. I think being forced to watch curling should be banned by the Geneva Convention. It makes televised golf look exciting. If I were detained and was uncooperative-(likely), if they just threatened to put me in a room with curling on TV, I’d sing like a canary to avoid the torture.

    1. Curling is the best Olympic sport.

      1. Biathalon

        But really, any sport without judges is better than sports with judges.

        1. Biathletes are amazing. Ski cross-country over varied terrain as fast as you can, then stop, shoot and hit 5 targets the size of a softball at a distance of 50 meters while you are still gasping for air. It came out of military training.

          The sport is fantastic but is, frankly, like watching paint dry other than the shooting and the last 100 meters or so as they dash for the finish line (how does a 20km relay end in a photo finish anyway?). Given the distance of each leg and the varying terrain there are only a couple of spots where cameras can operate, and it is almost impossible for the announcers to give coherent commentary except at the shooting range. Nothing to be done about it. But it is an incredible sport.

    2. I think being forced to watch curling should be banned by the Geneva Convention. It makes televised golf look exciting

      As opposed to championship fishing?

      1. Who’s forcing you to watch anything? The sport is offered. Don’t like it? Watch something else

    3. Curling is a very nuanced sport. Don’t believe it? Just watch the shot John Shuster played to score 5 (an almost unheard of event) against the Swedes in the final. Then try it yourself. The combination of coordination, patience, concentration, vision and precision is unparalleled in any other sport. Too bad you and others in this thread cannot appreciate it all. Mr T has a lot to teach you.

  13. What, exactly, gets curled?

    1. Giant polished granite stones.

      1. Which, I’m sure, was someone’s nickname in college.

      2. And the “curl” refers to the “English” on the stone determined by the pace on the stone and the twist employed at the release, causing the stone to curl in one direction or another as it travels across that 150 feet of ice. Far easier described than done.

  14. What I read here was that USA whooped that sorrey ass eh Rufus?

  15. That is not how the scoring works.

  16. Great to see spirit of the game at Olympic level. Ultimate has the same ethos and is hopefully coming to the Olympics soon.

    From the USA Ultimate official rules: “Preface: It is assumed that no player will intentionally violate the rules; thus there are no harsh penalties for inadvertent infractions, but rather a method for resuming play in a manner that simulates what most likely would have occurred absent the infraction. In Ultimate, an intentional infraction is considered cheating and a gross offense against the spirit of sportsmanship. Often a player is in a position to gain an advantage by committing an infraction, but that player is morally bound to abide by the rules. The integrity of Ultimate depends on each player’s responsibility to uphold the Spirit of the Game?, and this responsibility should remain paramount.”

    Except for a small professional league, Ultimate is self-officiated: “Self-Officiating: Players are responsible for their own foul and line calls. Players resolve their own disputes.”

  17. “to call their own fouls and meet out the proper repercussions for them”

    I believe that should be “mete” out the proper repercussions, right? How do grammar pedants fit into the ideas of this post?

    1. Curse you, Spellcheck

  18. Being a curling fan I take exception to the term “anarchy” as applied to the sport. The author should take the book of curling seriously. This is a sport that relies on the integrity and common commitment to the sport for “enforcement”, and by and large it works wonderfully well. Here, Dupont self-reported (as happened on other occasions during the games). Homan made a bad decision; so be it. I expect that next time it won’t happen; not because she got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct but because the response of the players and fans alike demonstrated where the line is that one should not cross. This is not anarchy. It is a community at work, enforcing its standards for the good of all. One major reason I like the sport so much.

  19. I seriously wish Ben Stiller would make a Curling version of Dodgeball (based off this article alone.) This movie would break the internet.

    Just this “Homan’s unsportsmanlike move rankled curling fans from Alberta to Winnipeg…”, FLOL, alone is gold.

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