Curling 101: Origins and Olympic history
The recorded history of curling indicates that the game developed during the 16th century in Scotland, the Netherlands and possibly Belgium.
The earliest curling stone dates back to 1511 and includes an inscription that connects the stone to the Scottish region of Stirling and Perth.
The first recorded curling match comes from 1540-41, when John Sclater, a Scottish monk from the Paisley Abbey, challenged the lay governor of the abbey, Gavin Hamilton, to a curling match (translated from Latin):
"Sclater went to the ice which was between the orchard and the late Abbot's room and there threw a stone along the ice three times, asserting that he was ready to carry out what had been promised on the first day of Gavin's arrival concerning a contest of throwing this sort of stone over the ice."
Twenty years later, in 1560, Dutchman Pieter Bruegel completed a painting of a curling scene, followed by his “Hunters in the Snow,” which also includes a curling scene in the background. Some historians have argued that these paintings prove that the Dutch had the game first, but the Sclater evidence – which only came to light in 1976 – calls that conclusion into question.
The curlers of Kilsyth in Stirlingshire formed a casual curling club in 1716, and the first officially-founded club, the Kinross-Club, was created in 1818. The Grand National Curling Club – now known as the Royal Caledonian Curling Club – was formed in 1838. It was the sport’s official world authority until the founding of the World Curling Federation in 1966.
Scottish immigrants popularized the sport in North America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The first Canadian curling club was founded in Montreal in 1807, and the first U.S. club emerged in Pontiac, Michigan in 1829.
Reverend John Kerr brought 24 Scots on the first transatlantic curling tour in the winter of 1902-03, and the matches between the Scots and Canadians illustrated how different the sport was in their two countries – the Scots were more aggressive players while the Canadians played more of a drawing game and were more effective sweepers. The Scotsmen soon adopted some of the Canadians’ innovative strategies.
Canadians continued to innovate through the first half of the twentieth century, devising the sliding delivery and the takeout game. Ken Watson, regarded as one of the greatest curlers of all-time, is credited with popularizing the sliding delivery. These new methods were on display at the first Scotch Cup series in 1959, where the Canadians, with their more complex style of play, overcame the old guard, leading to the modern era of international play and a series of new international rules. The World Curling Federation, which was founded in 1966, presides over international play.
When curling appeared as a medal sport at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, many believed it was making its debut as an official Olympic sport. However, in 2006 the Scottish newspaper The Herald uncovered proof that curling was an Olympic medal sport, not a demonstration sport as previously thought, at the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924.
Great Britain defeated Sweden and France to win the three-team men’s tournament in Chamonix.
After the 1924 Chamonix Games, curling made five unofficial Winter Olympic appearances as a demonstration sport: at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1932, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, in Innsburck in 1964, in Calgary in 1988 and finally in Albertville in 1992.
At the 1988 Calgary Games, curling-crazed Canadians snatched up the 21,000 tickets to the six days of competition almost as soon as they went on sale and the sport sold out faster than anything except for figure skating and speed skating. The Canadians did not disappoint their fans, as the women’s team finished first and the men’s team placed third.
In 1992, curling’s final appearance a demonstration sport, the Swiss men, skipped by Urs Dick, and the German women, skipped by Andrea Schoepp, won the men’s and women’s tournaments, respectively. The U.S. men’s team, skipped by Bud Somerville, finished third in Albertville.
Curling finally returned to the Olympic program as a medal sport at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. Sandra Schmirler’s Canadian team won the women’s title, defeating Denmark in the final. The Swiss team skipped by Patrick Huerlimann defeated Canada in the final to win the men’s gold medal.
Schmirler, affectionately known as “Schmirler the Curler,” had captured her third world title in 1997, and consequently entered the Olympic tournament as the favorite. Schmirler had given birth to her first child only nine weeks before the Canadian selection trials and returned to Canada after her gold-medal performance an enormously popular figure. Less than a year later, however, doctors discovered a malignant tumor in Schmirler’s chest cavity. The 36-year-old died of cancer in March 2000.
The curling tournament was held in the mountains outside Nagano in a town called Karuizawa. Equestrian events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were also held in Karuizawa, making it the first city to host both Summer and Winter Olympic events.
In the men’s tournament, Team Norway upset the Canadians to win gold. In the final end of the final game, Canadian skip Kevin Martin missed his intended mark by about an inch to give Norway a 6-5 win.
Great Britain claimed gold in the women’s tournament. The team of Scotswomen skipped by Rhona Martin nearly didn’t advance out of the round-robin round when they landed in a three-way tie for fourth place. But after winning both tie-breaker matches, Martin’s rink defeated the Canadians and then the Swiss to place first. They were the first British Winter Olympians to win gold since 1984.
The U.S. women finished fourth in Salt Lake, their highest-ever finish at an Olympic curling tournament.
Despite winning 29 of the 47 men’s world championships golds prior to the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, Canada’s men had taken silver at both the Nagano and Salt Lake Games. The Canadians, led by Brad Gushue, rectified that ignominious mark by winning gold in Torino. The U.S. men’s rink, skipped by Pete Fenson, beat Great Britain to win the bronze medal, the first U.S. curling medal at an Olympic Winter Games. Anette Norberg and her Swedish team defeated Switzerland to capture gold in the women’s tournament.
After curling appeared as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Calgary Games, the 2010 Vancouver Games marked the first time curling appeared as a medal sport in the curling-crazed nation of Canada. Though Scotland is generally regarded as the birthplace of curling, it’s Canada where the sport blossomed and evolved. The Canadian men, led by Kevin Martin, won gold and became the first nation to go undefeated during an Olympic tournament. Canada’s women failed to make it a completely golden Games for curling, as Cheryl Bernard’s rink fell to Norberg’s Swedish squad in the gold medal final.
It was a clean sweep for Team Canada in sochi, as both the men's and women's teams took curling gold.
In the women's final, skip Jennifer Jones led her team to 11 straight wins in Sochi, finishing the Olympic tournament undefeated. It was the first gold for Canada in women's curling since 1998. Finishing in second place was Sweden, the 2010 Olympic champions, and Britain took the bronze.
The Canadian men continued their streak of curling dominance, winning a third consecutive Olympic title. Nicknamed the 'Buff Boys' for their dedication to fitness in a sport not known for bulging muscles, skip Brad Jacobs and his teammates outscored Britain 9-3 to win the gold medal. Britain received silver, while Sweden claimed bronze.
Anette Norberg, Eva Lund, Cathrine Lindahl and Anna Le Moine: First curlers to win two consecutive gold medals
The Swedish women’s team won gold at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, becoming the first curlers to claim the title at two consecutive Olympics.
Kevin Martin, Torger Nergard and Mirjam Ott: Two-time Olympic medalists
Canada’s Kevin Martin won silver at the 2002 Salt Lake Games and gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Norway’s Torger Nergard won gold in 2002 and silver in 2010. Switzerland’s Mirjam Ott won two silvers, in 2002 and 2006.
Carl August Kronlund: Oldest medalist
Sweden’s Carl August Kronlund was 58 years, 157 days old when he won a silver medal at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924. The oldest female medalist is Canada’s Carolyn Darbyshire, who was 46 years, 82 days old when she won a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Joe Polo: Youngest medalist
Team USA’s Joe Polo was 23 years, 82 days when he played second on the American team that won the bronze medal at the 2006 Torino Olympics. The youngest female medalist is Switzerland’s Valeria Spaelty, who was 22 years, 250 days when she took silver with Mirjam Ott’s team at the 2006 Games.