During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada, you couldn't throw a broom without hitting a television channel beaming curling into every living room in the world. What was that about? Since when did pushing a disk with a handle down a sheet of ice with two guys or gals with brooms helping it along qualify as must-see TV? Never mind the questions of how it qualifies as an Olympic sport.
For people who don't know the first or last thing about curling but who watched anyway, we asked someone who would know. Sore Bender. Sore, sidelined by a curling injury and now retired, was a seasoned 30-year veteran of the curling circuit. After his final end, he was instrumental in getting the funding for the first (and only) Museum of Curling and Its History, where he is curator and occasional lecturer on the sport.
Q. Mr. Bender, we don't want to say all – but for most people curling is big mystery. Can you give a brief history of the sport? I think most people would wonder how anyone in their right mind would think a rock and a couple of brooms might mean a fun time.
A. Well, you're not far from the truth when you put it like that. He wasn't in his right mind, the guy that thought it up. Curling started in the north where the winters never ended it seemed. And there was no television and people got bored and depressed and stir-crazy and sometimes downright murderous and drunk at the same time. The first rock that led to curling was thrown in a rage, outdoors on a really cold night. One guy throwing a rock at another guy, a guy so fed up that he just picked up a rock and threw at the first guy that came along. And he felt better.
Q. You mean the guy that threw it felt better.
A. Well, yeah. The other guy who didn't. He fell down and he slid on the ice and he didn't get up. And that was that. But it started kind of a bad trend and all these crazy cooped-up men would come out of bars at closing time, grab rocks and start throwing them at each other because the first guy felt so good after he did it. And they did feel good, but they had to tone it down because too many guys weren't getting up after they got hit. And they toned it down by drawing a bullseye in the middle of a lake and started aiming at that instead and then you know when you get a bunch of guys together, there's going to be some “I throw it better than you,” or I can hit the bullseye in three tries.” And some betting. And then there were teams and the rest is history.
Q. What about the brooms? Were they used to sweep up the bodies that didn't get up?
A. Yeah, I get the joke. No. There were no brooms at first. But, see, after a game, some teams were so sore – there was a lot of drinking so that didn't help – they threw there beer bottles or whiskey bottles or what have you right at each other and there was broken glass and somebody had to sweep it up before the next game. And, course, before you knew it, someone figured out that made the ice slicker when they threw the rock – well, you take it from there. And then the sweeping helped them stay warm, too, because it was so damn cold when they were out rock-throwing.
Q. There are two schools of thought on sweeping: The “Yes, Sweeping Makes a Huge Difference” school, and the “No, Sweeping Is Stupid” school. Curlers generally fall into the first school, while everyone else in the world falls into the second. What about you?
A. I don't know. You'd look pretty stupid just walking the rock down to the bullseye and not doing anything to help it. You might as well be walking along and having a chat or a drink with your team mates.
Q. What is a skip?
A. There was a guy named Skip. Skip Rollie. Skip Rollie was the first player to make the nearly impossible Triple Strike Crossover Block Roll Switch. It scored seven points on one stone. When he did this, he and his teammates jumped up and down because they just beaten Canada for the very first time. They jumped so hard, they wen right through the ice. Everybody survived OK, except Skip, who got bad frostbite and it just went from there until he couldn't grip the stone or a broom and he just went off and died the way a dog goes off when he knows there's no use anymore.
Q. That's sad.
A. Course it was. But good things came of it. They moved curling off the lakes and into the indoors where you have bathrooms and a place to get drinks and it's a place the whole family might want to go after church on Sunday. And Skip got honored, too, because the head of every team is named after him.
Q. Does curling use coaches? Who are those middle-aged guys that come down to the curling sheet once in awhile and talk to the players? Is he talking strategy?
A. Sort of. He's someone who heads up things and gives advice. I guess you could call him the coach. Usually, he just comes down and tells us a joke or takes our drink orders. But he really doesn't know anything more than we do. He's kind of an honorary barkeep coach. A guy who can listen to your problems, pick up your spirits.
Q. I don't know anyone who knows the rules of curling. Is that because they are so difficult?
A. Well, it used to be they made them up as they went along, just to keep things relaxed since, remember, this was something to do blow off steam instead of throwing a bottle or shooting off your gun. But now there are two rules: get it down there and hit the other guy's rock while you're getting it down there. Nothing fancy.
Q. Are curlers like other athletes? Do they have to train? Is there a diet regimen?
A. No, that's how we're better than most athletes. Training is almost like cheating to a curler, almost like taking those steroid drugs. If you can't get yourself up and curl anytime, anywhere, no matter what shape you're in, there's something wrong with you. We don't take vitamins and we eat whatever we want. Most curlers like a big pot roast before a big game and they like to have a drink before they get on the ice. There's no rules about drinking during the game either. But it's not a good idea because you can get wild with the stone or your broom and, more likely than not, someone gets hurt.
Q. Have there been a lot of curling accidents?
A. Not that many. Like I said, people tend to keep their drinking to before and after the games. There are some wrist injuries from over-sweeping, or sweeping the wrong way. Mostly the injuries come from bus accidents. Bus sliding off the road on our way to a game. Bus tipping over. Bus rolling into a lake. Bus jumping lane into incoming traffic. Bus spinning out and hitting a billboard. That kind of thing. We always used to worry about our away games. Icy roads are a problem for curling teams.
Q. Are you married?
A. I was, but curling kind of got in the way. You gotta be married to curler if you're a curler. It's too hard to explain to someone who doesn't curl. She thought it was a joke. She used to hide my broom when she was mad. And you meet women on the road.
Q. You mean, like curling groupies?
A. There were some. A guy with his own broom and who knows how to use it attracts a lot of women.
Q. So, there are star curlers just like there are star football players and soccer players?
A. Why not?
Q. Now that you are retired, do you miss it?
A. The women? Nah, not that much. And I was getting clumsy. I got bifocals and those lenses - you see double – and I dropped a stone on my foot about ten years ago and it never really healed up. And, of course, when you get older, you don't like being on ice so much. You're already cold all the time. And I've got the museum to keep up.
Q. What can people see if they go to the Curling Museum?
A. Well, it's pretty small, but it's good. There's trophies and different curling rocks and brooms and their history. There are wax figures of famous curlers they might recognize. Big charts showing the important dates in curling history and descriptions of curling milestones. Like the Brawl of '37 and how that changed curling. And there are oral histories, stories told by the old-timers, that you can listen to.
Q. Well, thanks, Sore Bender. I'm just relieved I didn't make one crack about shuffleboard.
A. You're welcome. Me, too.