From an outside perspective, curling can seem like a truly bizarre sport. There are people sweeping in front of a 42 pound rock, all while another player screams at them from the other end of the ice. It’s a spectacle that captures the attention of the world every four years during the Winter Olympics, if only because it’s so darn weird.

Curling Olympics 2018
John Shuster (center) led the USA men’s curling team to Olympic gold in 2018, significantly raising the profile of the sport in the United States. (Image: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty)

But with every Olympic cycle, curling earns more and more fans – even outside of Canada, the one nation where the sport can truly be called popular. And while curling still only has a niche fan base worldwide, there’s no doubt that 2018 was a year that saw more attention brought to this offbeat sport than ever before.

American Curling Boom

The 2018 Winter Olympics featured a number of firsts for curling. It was the first time that a mixed doubles competition was held at the Olympics. But while this new two-player version of the sport may have provided fans with a different style of play, in the end the winners were familiar: the Canadian duo of Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris walked away with gold after beating Switzerland in the final.

Surprisingly, however, that was the only medal that Canada would earn in 2018. While Rachel Homan’s rink came in as a clear favorite in the women’s competition, it finished 4-5 in round robin play, failing to make the medal rounds. And while Kevin Koe went 6-3 in their campaign, the Canadian men’s team lost to the United States in their semifinal before losing the bronze medal game to Switzerland.

It was instead the American team that made the biggest waves at the Olympics. John Shuster’s team came back from a 2-4 start to win five straight games, making the playoffs and then winning the gold medals against the heavily favored Swedish team skipped by Niklas Edin. Shuster’s incredible run took the typical Olympic interest in curling to new levels in the United States, with clubs across the country reporting record attendance at open houses and learn-to-curl events, as well as increased membership in the following fall season.

Global Expansion in 2018

Even after the Olympics, there have been signs that curling is beginning to break through to a more mainstream audience worldwide.

As late as 1965, there were only six nations in total competing in the sport’s world championship. But 2018 saw curling expand to all corners of the world, with Nigeria becoming the first African nation to become part of the World Curling Federation.

Curling is expanding in other non-traditional parts of the world as well: Guyana competed internationally for the first time, challenging the United States and Brazil in qualification for the world championships this year, raising hopes that the Americas might someday have a competitive regional championship similar to those seen in Europe and Asia.

Of course, not all of the attention on curling this year has been positive. Mainstream media attention still mainly comes when something weird or outrageous happens, such as when a Canadian competitive team was kicked out of an event for excessive drunkenness.

But despite the sport’s eclectic reputation, there’s no doubt that curling is gaining in popularity with each Olympic cycle. And while you might forget about “chess on ice” until 2022, there’s no doubt that audiences will once again be fascinated by this game when the next Winter Olympics are held in Beijing.