By Bruce Deachman
I’ve been covering curling as a journalist for the Ottawa Citizen for five years now, from its elite performers to the once-a-year neophytes. I’ve meandered hundreds of years into the sport’s past, poking into its nooks and crannies, and I’ve followed its most recent developments. I know these numbers as well as I know my own address.
Over a million Canadians curl at least once every year at one of the country’s 1,200 clubs. About three-quarters of a million did it on at least a monthly basis this past year, and most curl on a fairly non-competitive basis. In terms of demographics, according to the Print Measurement Bureau’s most recent figures, curlers tend to be slightly above-average in areas traditionally associated with success; more white-collar workers than in the country in general, with a higher education and higher earnings than the national average.
Yet, despite the relative professional success of its participants, curling is the sport with perhaps the greatest grassroots base. As Jean Sonmor wrote in her book, Burned by the Rock, “These Canadians are farmers, fishermen, stock-brokers. They run computers, hairdressing salons or supermarkets. The mix is as diverse as the country.”
There are as many reasons to curl as there are curlers. Compared to sports like golf, hockey or skiing, curling is affordable; a typical curling membership runs anywhere from $100 to $300 per year, while the cost of equipment is hardly daunting when stacked beside just about any other activity.
The entry-level skills required are minimal, too. Curling clubs openly welcome curlers of all ages and abilities. You’re never too young or too old to start curling.
With 1,200 clubs in Canada, you’re never too far from one either, whether you live downtown in a sprawling metropolis, or in the shadow of a lone grain-elevator.
In terms of curling’s fitness and cardiovascular benefits, it is an excellent sport for all ages with the output of energy, especially when sweeping teammates’ rocks, fairly self-regulated. In other words, you can get a good workout when you want one, but you can also avoid undue stress when necessary.
But none of this, not the reasonable cost, the accessibility, or the health benefits, accounts for why most people curl. It certainly doesn’t begin to explain why I took it up myself at the beginning of last season, after watching from the sidelines for years.
Curling, at its heart, is a social sport. Not only do you have three teammates cheering you on, but every team you play against is part of curling’s fraternity. You shake hands before the game and again afterwards, join one another for a post-game soda and social. With every game played, your contact with the world expands, as the six degrees of separation become five, then four, three, two, one and, finally, non-existent.
Rural curlers already know this. In many communities, the curling club was the third public structure built, just after the church and school. Curling, in smaller, rural populations, is the thread that ties the community together through long, cold winters.
In cities, curling provides meaningful human contact after a day of avoiding conversation in elevators and eye contact in traffic. It offers an opportunity to be a part of the community again, while enjoying the benefits of competition.
No matter where you participate, though, curling grabs hold of you by its very grassroots and pulls you, the sport’s heart, to where the people are, to where you can feel what it’s like just to be. It connects us all to one another. As Sonmor put it, “In curling rinks you see vivacious stay-at-home grandmothers in intense conversation with slick male accountants. On the street, they inhabit different worlds, but here, in the club, they are buddies.”