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October 30, 2014

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In curling, hands often speak louder than words

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James Hill/The New York Times

Swedish women’s curler Margaretha Sigfridsson in the semifinal against the Swiss team, at the Ice Cube Curling Center in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 19, 2014. Sigfridsson and other curlers often communicate with teammates by hand signals.

SOCHI, Russia — As the fans roared in the background at a recent curling match here, the Swedish skip, Margaretha Sigfridsson, examined the smattering of stones on the ice, her red hair pulled back and her face stern. Her team trailed Russia by 2 points in the third end.

Sigfridsson, known for her active vocal cords on the ice, belted out “Gooooooo” as her three teammates glided toward her, but they were paying more attention to the calm movement of her hands, a wave to the left and a flick of the broom to the right, indicating her desired destination for the stone.

Sigfridsson was relying on the chief language of curlers: hand signals, which have been more important than ever at this tournament.

The Olympic curling competition in Sochi — a relentless 10-team round robin staged over 11 days — may set a record for loudness in a sport in which athletes are used to hearing only the hum of their stones gliding over the ice. At the Ice Cube Curling Center, noisemakers, air horns and voices ring out in an echo-prone arena, often at inconvenient times. Curling etiquette usually dictates quiet when a curler delivers a stone.

Curling requires the ability to communicate with teammates at the other end of a 150-foot-long sheet of ice. But hand signals are second nature to most elite teams and are playing a crucial role here.

“Sitting in the hack during my last shot, I actually couldn’t hear myself think,” Britain’s skip, Eve Muirhead, said after a game against Russia on Monday. Muirhead credited the team’s use of basic hand signals in a 9-6 victory. Britain went on to win the women’s bronze medal Thursday. Canada went through the tournament unbeaten and won the gold over Sweden.

“I was just hoping there wasn’t a really important line call where the sweepers would have to hear me scream,” Muirhead said, “because there’s absolutely no way they would have heard me.”

Arena managers in Sochi anticipated the noise problem and worked with the World Curling Federation to create “Shhhh” videos that play on screens in the Ice Cube, but to little avail.

“I think it was definitely harder when the Russian audience was there and the Russian girls were playing,” Swedish curler Maria Wennerstrom said. “Of course, we prefer to talk to each other and hear each other, but we manage anyway.”

Unlike on-field communication in sports like football, curling signals are used in the open and are relatively standard from one team to another.

Curlers may point high or low on their bodies to indicate how far to push a stone, a touch to the head indicating the desire for a hard chuck of the stone, a touch to the feet a softer delivery.

Some teams use numbers to mark off the area beyond the hog line (the area with the big bull’s-eye at the end): 1 is close to the hog line, and 9 or 10 close to the backboard. With the simple wave of a number of digits, teammates know precisely where in relation to the button, or the bull’s-eye, to place a stone.

For a draw — a cast stone that does not hit another - most skips use a broom to indicate where a teammate should place it. For a takeout — when a stone bumps out an opponent’s — a skip taps the enemy’s stone and holds the broom on the desired line. All of this must be executed delicately because it is forbidden for a broom or a foot to touch a stone in motion.

Keith Wendorf, director of competitions for the sport’s governing body, the World Curling Federation, said he was torn about what to do about the noise at the arena. On one hand, it represents precisely the kind of enthusiasm the sport aspires to cultivate. On the other, “there is an etiquette,” he said, noting that “many fans don’t know what’s going on.”

“People come for the Olympic spirit, and they come in and they’re only cheering for their country,” Wendorf said. “In other sports, you’re yelling and screaming and constantly trying to motivate your team. Inadvertently, they hurt their own teams. They make so much noise in the hack that they can’t concentrate and think about what they’re trying to do.”

Even with hand signals in use, many of the curlers here are unable to resist the urge to scream their lungs out as they gesture.

“In curling, you can’t hit anyone,” said Colleen Jones, an elite curler and a television commentator on the sport. “In hockey, you can check someone. In curling, you yell. That’s where the adrenaline of the game comes from.”

When hands and brooms fail, Rasmus Stjerne of Denmark offers a piercing whistle to his teammates.

“You can definitely hear it,” teammate Johnny Frederiksen said. “It’s a good signal because you’re not in any doubt whether it’s him or anyone else yelling.”

The American skip, John Shuster, cited the noise as part of a verbal miscommunication to his vice skip, Jeff Isaacson, in his final throw against Russia. The draw just missed its target and gave Russia a 7-6 win.

“There it’s curlers watching curling, and here it’s Russian Olympic fans cheering for Russia,” Shuster said. “You get this no other place than the Olympics.”

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