Given a tailcoat and striped pants, Ed Risling could pose as the butler in the most noble of households. He has that serene manner and unflappable look. The only overt sign of emotion to be detected in a stressful moment is a fractional pursing of his lips, as if someone had called for red wine with the fish. On the other hand, Otto Danieli might know a bit more about vintage Burgundies because he is a Zurich restaurateur while Risling is a sales representative from Seattle.
There was plenty of chance for such fantasizing at the World Curling Championships which took place recently in a cramped arena in Perth, Scotland. There it was possible to study every twitch in the facial muscles of both men who, as "skips," were captaining their "rinks," or four-man teams, in the final—Risling for the U.S., Danieli for Switzerland. As Risling said, "In curling you can't hide anything. If you make a mistake, everybody can see it from the start, slowly developing. But you can't show any emotion. You can't afford temperament, even though all the pressure is on the skip and one error can cost you everything."
The skip feels the pressure because he usually delivers the final two of his team's eight stones in each of the 10 "ends," or innings, that make up a normal match, and scores in curling are determined by the total number of stones that are closer to the center of the circular target area, or "house," than the nearest stone of the opposing team.
Occasionally, Risling allowed himself to pluck a corn straw from his broom for chewing purposes. Otherwise, only that barely perceptible contraction of the lips gave anything away.
The ice arena was about the only place in Perth where emotion was damped down, and then only by the players. One thousand North Americans, mainly Canadians, had come over for the championships, and the city saw more flag wagging than it had since Bonnie Prince Charlie temporarily made it his headquarters in the 1745 rising against the English. Normally Perth is a prim, even forbidding, granite-faced city but it went en f�te for the occasion.
The Scots, mysteriously to newcomers to the sport, call curling "the roarin' game." After a while one begins to see why, and it has nothing at all to do with what happens on the ice. In the early days of the sport—the first printed reference to it is in 1638 when the Bishop of Orkney was denounced by the Church of Scotland for curling on the Sabbath—you took your stone out on deep-water ice, together with ropes and ladders as a safety precaution, and you naturally took care to bring along a supply of the hard stuff as well. The tradition clearly persists among the fans, if not the players. It's been a long time since curling was just an excuse for Scots to clear their heads on a Sunday morning by skidding rocks over the ice.
In spite of its long history and even though its laws were codified as long ago as 1838, curling didn't officially become an international sport until 1959, when the first challenge match between Scotland and Canada (sponsored by the Scotch Whisky Association) took place at Perth. It was a catastrophic occasion for the Scots who, having invented curling, understandably imagined themselves to be its world masters. Their traditional strategy was to play the "draw," to concentrate on the accurate placing of the stones within the house. The Canadians, however, played it differently, concentrating on knocking opponents' stones out of the house and going for scores on the last shots. They called it the "takeout" game, and one member of that first Scottish team was so incensed by the new, brutal approach ("What's the use of playing a good shot when they just knock it oot?" he said) that he never curled again.
The takeout game, and the Canadians, continued to dominate. Their monopoly of the championship was not broken until 1965 when a chap named Bud Somerville skipped the U.S. to a win. Since then Scotland and Sweden have each won a title, in 1967 and 1973 respectively, and at the start of the Perth matches the U.S. held the Silver Broom, the world championship trophy awarded by Air Canada, having beaten Sweden in 1974. Still, Canada had won it 12 of 16 years, and at Perth it was among the favorites, having the best record in the preliminary 10-nation round-robin tournament, ahead of Sweden, the U.S. and Switzerland. Canada was matched against Switzerland in the semifinal round, with the U.S. facing Sweden. Some 200 citizens of Thunder Bay, Ontario, hometown of the Canadian rink, had signed a three-foot-long greeting cable, and on Saturday night at the arena one could scarcely hear the pipes and drums of the band, hard as they were belting out "Bonnie Dundee," for the chanting of "Go, Canada, go!"
But football-style chants hardly mesh with the subtle game of curling. The climaxes, when they come, are more the occasion for hissed, indrawn breaths as the stone travels down the ice, and polite, Wimbledon-style clapping when it hits in the right place. Under normal circumstances, a solemnly raised broom is the only signal the sweepers give to indicate a good shot.
In their semifinal, Canadian brooms were lofted often enough, even though at the halfway point Switzerland led 3-1. (In curling the advantage lies with the team that has the last shot of an end. Since the winner of the previous end leads off the next, many prefer to leave an end scoreless when they hold that last-shot advantage.) Sure enough, in the fifth end Canadian Skip Bill Tetley had chosen to send his rock through the house, hoping to pick up two clear points later. He did it in the sixth for a 3-3 tie. By the 10th and final end, the score was 5-5, but Canada had the advantage of the last shot and victory looked certain. A Canadian stone held the center of the house and was guarded, seemingly impregnably, by a row of others. Danieli picked up his rock for the last Swiss shot.