SOCHI, Russia -- Thing is, when you take a step back and look at any sport as if you've never seen it before, they all look ridiculous.
A man swings a stick at a ball and then runs around in a circle. A group of men run into another group of men while another man either attempts to run through or around them, or throw a dead animal over them. Five people toss a piece of rubber in a bucket by bouncing it on the ground. None of those activities make a lick of sense without context. They would look, to an alien, completely stupid. We only attach importance to them because we've been watching them our whole lives. They are normal to us only because they are ours.
So you and I are laughing at curling, but this is only because you and I watch it every four years and therefore only notice its eccentricities. Why are they on ice but not wearing skates? Why are the bagpipes played before every match? Is this the only sport ever invented in which the primary object used in play has a handle? And sweet mother of mercy, what is with all the brooms?
If you only watched football once every four years, it would take you forever to figure out when they are supposed to kick, and why. (Nevermind that strange imaginary yellow line.) The confusion is our fault, not the sports'.
So I can tell you, after spending a solid 13 hours watching curling today, that this is a sport its competitors take very seriously. In that way, it is just like every other sport. Competitors are focused, honed and extremely well-coached. They practice their craft for years to reach this stage. They want to win as badly as anyone doing anything anywhere. Every move is precise and with much forethought; it's a science to them. They even talk like athletes you know and love; I caught Canada's Brad Jacobs, after his tournament favorites barely edged Germany 11-8, saying "It is what it is" three different times. Even the press is the same: Your average curling reporter is as snarling and cynical about the game he/she covers as your average baseball reporter. ("Oh, nice shot there," snarled one British reporter after a failed GBR toss. CURLING HOT TAKES!) Also: Pretty sure there are groupies, of both genders, for both gender's teams. Just because these guys all have day jobs -- vice skip Jeff Isaacson is a junior high science teacher in Minnesota -- doesn't mean this is a goof. It's just sports.
That doesn't mean it's not a tremendously fun way to spend one's day. At the Ice Cube Curling Centre -- easily the most haphazardly designed of Putin's coastal buildings; the others shimmer and gleam, but this one sort of just squats there, a plaid Lego surrounded by newer, shinier toys -- the game, for an American, is the platonic ideal of foes. All the historical foes from all the sports are here: Russia, Canada, China, Germany, England, Japan... all that's missing is Mexico. (One shouldn't hold one's breath for the El Tri curling emergence.) And once you understand the rules, which our own Aaron Gordon helpfully has done so that I do not have to, the games take on an undeniable intensity. The best sports are not decided in the big moments but in the margins, and curling is all margins. You have to be thinking five steps ahead of your opponent at all times.
The key to curling's mind-bending nature is that, to use the parlance of pickup basketball, it's constantly loser's out. If the other team scores, you get the advantage of going last (the "hammer" throw, the best way to score in any match). But because there are a finite number of chances to score -- 10 "ends," basically innings -- sometimes it behooves you not to win... to essentially throw a round for a better chance later or to hang onto a lead. You can run out the clock in a sport where there is no clock. (This is how defending Gold Medalist Switzerland beat the U.S team in the afternoon; It's incredibly difficult to come from behind in curling.) Or you can do the exact opposite. It's a sport where you're constantly playing the angles. It'll make you a bit loopy once you understand it: by the end, I was Maximillian in Darren Aronofsky's Pi, a man driven mad by all the possibilities, the endless turns a seemingly controlled environment can go.
Don't get me wrong: These are athletes. Just ask Vernon Davis, who will be here later this week as Team USA's honor captain for a second consecutive Olympics. (He's a diehard fan of the sport.) A common misconception about Olympic curlers is that they're somehow out of shape, sort of the token golfers and bowlers of the Olympics. But with the exception of Germany skip John Jahr -- who bares a striking resemblance to British character actor Timothy Spall -- all the curlers are in peak physical condition. They have unusually huge deltoids and triceps; those brooms aren't going to sweep themselves. The Canadian team, in particular, is downright jacked; they look more like Navy SEALs than men who brush ice for a living. (They even once had their own PED scandal.) It isn't easy to understand why all that bulk and strength is necessary; I saw no dramatic difference between the men's game and the women's, and this is the rare lovely sport where grace and nuance matter more than power. But don't go thinking these are beer leaguers. These are the best in the world at what they do. It's only funny to you.
So all the odd little things, the way the hurlers are so proud of their tossing form that they hold it for a good three seconds longer than they need to, the way players seem to keep their own score without the need of any official, the way the scoreboard asks fans not to make noise as players are "delivering the stone" (as if that's going to work), the way I think I caught China's Rui Lui checking his phone in the middle of a match, the way the Russian men's team was wearing Zubaz pants, the way the competitors are literally screaming throughout the entire match... those aren't odd. They're just odd to us who don't know.
Listen, curling is kinda goofy. But all sports are, by their very nature. This is all silly recreation, and one man's goofy is another man's normal. We can have our late-night chuckles watching all the sweeping at 3 a.m. on the USA Network. But I'm not telling those massive Canadian curlers I find their beloved sport a glorious exercise in absurdism, and I doubt you are either. I am just going to enjoy it.
* * *