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.