Get jazzed: Curling will soon be on TV again in large amounts, the way the snow sports deities intended. For the 2018 Winter Olympics, there’s even more curling—not just because it’s great, but because a new variant has been added to the program, airing before the traditional four-person team curling begins. The first draw will be livestreamed tonight at 7 p.m. ET starting with USA against “Russia,” and there’ll be replays on NBCSN Thursday.
The core of this sport—the stones, surface, scoring, and sweeping—are all identical. The curlers are just throwin’ them a little differently, and with 50 percent the personnel. The main differences are that in mixed doubles:
- Games are eight ends instead of 10
- Ends are six stones per team instead of eight, and one of those rocks per team is preset
- Teams are just one woman and one man
- Throwing order goes A-B-B-B-A and the throwing order can change between ends. (Most commonly the woman throws the first and last, though the former world champion Russians are a notable exception)
- Games last about an hour shorter (one hour and 30 minutes)
There are some other nuanced differences, such as when you can start hitting stones out and the weird-ass “power play” (here’s an explainer of the whole shebang), but the virtue of this variant is to give an opportunity to other countries and curlers, especially non-skips, who otherwise had trouble breaking into the elite group. Non-traditional curling countries such as Hungary, Spain, Austria, and the Czech Republic have won world medals in this event—though none of them qualified for the Olympics.
Think of mixed doubles as the sport’s beach volleyball, or the upcoming Summer Olympics’ 3-on-3 basketball: Other skill sets are going to shine but athletes in the flagship version can slide over with a couple years’ practice and succeed. And they have. Case in point: The U.S. team of Matt and Becca Hamilton are also on the men’s and women’s teams— Switzerland’s women’s alternate Jenny Perret is the only other athlete to pull double duty this Olympics. Canada will feature two curlers, Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris, who already have Olympic golds in the regular version.
The format will raise eyebrows, because as unathletic as curling looks … mixed doubles appears even less challenging. As someone who’s curled for 15 years, I’ve played exactly three mixed doubles games in my life and the game sure felt even faster, because the athletes have so many more duties on each throw. Hitting opposition rocks becomes more difficult, since the number of sweepers and line callers is cut in half, and the skip’s broom you normally aim toward is not there. Neither is your skip. It’s just you and your mate against the world.
But this new version brings many more opportunities to feature others. Four-person curling has become a game where the skip is synonymous with the team. Rachel Homan is Team Canada. John Shuster is Team USA. Eve Muirhead is Team Scotland/Great Britain. Though their sweepers aren’t as notable, mixed doubles puts faces on those otherwise faceless drones. Without it, the U.S. Olympic Committee would likely not be promoting the Hamilton siblings as strongly as they have, including their Tonight Show cameo, although their big personalities warrant it regardless.
The event’s length is more relevant to the dilettante Olympic fan, as well as the scoring areas, which are typically more cluttered with more points scored. In the end it’s a more watchable version, despite the dissent from purists. Sure, it’s made-up sport, but so are all sports. And given its lack of establishment, there’s no clear favorite, so we might as well give all participants—USA, Canada, Switzerland, “Russia,” Finland, Norway, China, and host South Korea—a three-in-eight chance of earning hardware. For anyone hungry for four-person curling, mixed doubles will be an effective appetizer.
Matt Sussman is a sort-of-competitive curler from Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter at @suss2hyphens.