This article is part of our Beijing Olympics series.
Of all nine gold medals captured by the United States at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Team USA’s win in men’s curling might have been the most improbable.
History was not on the Americans’ side. Between the men’s and women’s teams, the U.S. had won only once at the World Curling Championships since 1978 (a women’s title in 2003), and it had previously earned just one curling medal of any type at the Olympics (a men’s bronze in 2006). After taking that bronze, the American men foundered on the Olympic stage, finishing last in 2010 and second-to-last in 2014. Going into the 2018 Olympics, they were ranked fourth in the world, solidly trailing No. 3 Norway and sitting far behind Nos. 1 and 2, Canada and Sweden.
Nor did the tournament seem to be breaking the U.S.’s way early on. The team lost four of its first six games to open the round-robin stage, seemingly dashing any hopes of taking home a medal at all — much less winning gold. But after three straight wins (including one over Canada) to close out the round-robin and advance on a tiebreaker, the U.S. proceeded to defeat both of the top-two teams in the world — Canada again, and then Sweden — to claim gold in dramatic fashion. “We’ve played our best when our backs were up against the wall,” American curler Tyler George said after the win. “[F]or five days, we were the best team in the world, and we did it at the right time.”
Most fairy-tale runs end on that high note. U.S. curling, however, will get to add another chapter to its story this month at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Whether it will be as successful as the original depends on a lot of factors — not least of which is how much 2018’s breakthrough was merely a one-off, or rather the start of something bigger for America in this cult-favorite winter sport.
The gold medal seemed to pique more sustained American interest in the sport, at least at first. Curling normally sees an every-four-year “bump” in attention, as casual Olympic viewers first tune in out of curiosity, then out of addiction — yes, the action is legitimately engrossing — but eventually forget about the game until the next Olympic cycle. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, though, U.S. curling officials were reporting a greater increase in participation than usual, with more members at the club level and more facilities in which to play. According to Google Trends, curling-related searches in America were up by nearly 3 percent in the two years following the 2018 Olympics, compared with the two years after the 2014 Olympics.
Like everything else, that upward trajectory has been complicated by the pandemic. Curling clubs across North America had to suspend activities to prevent the virus from spreading, high-level curling tournaments had to be canceled, and curling-related search traffic was down by more than 6 percent in the two years leading up to the 2022 Olympics, relative to the same period heading into 2018. Whatever momentum curling had built in the U.S. after the gold-medal victory was doubtless slowed by COVID-19, although there’s no way to know if it was negated completely.
But regardless of whether a breakout for the next generation of U.S. curlers was put on hold by the pandemic, the men’s team representing America’s repeat bid for gold will be stocked with familiar names from the current generation. John Shuster, captain of the 2018 team — and author of the gold-sealing shot against Sweden — will return as skip, joined by Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner as well. Chris Plys, who went to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as an alternate, and two-time U.S. curling champion Colin Hufman round out the roster.
The betting markets don’t have much faith in the U.S.’s ability to repeat as champions. Depending on which outlet you look at, the Americans’ odds vary from +1000 (or a 9 percent implied probability before adjusting for the take) to +1100 (8 percent) or +1400 (7 percent). All of those odds have the U.S. ranked fifth in the Olympic field, a dip from its first-place finish from 2018. Is that regression warranted, though?
According to Ken Pomeroy’s curling ratings,1 Team Shuster currently ranks 11th-best in the world, though it ranks fifth among teams going to the Olympics. (Canada and Great Britain are so good at curling that they have numerous teams among the top 10 in the world.)2 So it’s not surprising to see it at No. 5 in the betting odds as well, indicating that it will probably need to overachieve again in 2022 to claim a second consecutive medal, much less another gold.
Instead, perhaps it’s the women’s turn for their own Olympic breakout this time around. Though the U.S. has never earned a women’s medal in curling, it hasn’t been for lack of anticipation: A fourth-place finish at the Olympics in 2002, a gold medal at the 2003 world championship and a silver at the worlds in 2005 led to high expectations for the future. But what followed was a letdown. The Americans went a disappointing 2-7 in the round-robin stage to finish tied for eighth out of 10 entrants in 2006; four years later, they duplicated that record to finish dead last; then they went 1-8 for another last-place showing in 2014. However, they improved to 4-5 in 2018, finishing in a four-way tie for fifth place — and more recently, they won the bronze medal at the 2021 worlds, defeating No. 1 -ranked Sweden to earn that distinction.
With sisters Tabitha and Tara Peterson leading the way (along with Nina Roth, alternate Aileen Geving and Becca Hamilton, Matt’s sister), the U.S. women have momentum on their side once again. In fact, Team Peterson ranks higher relative to the world in Pomeroy’s ratings (10th) than Team Shuster does on the men’s side.3 But will it translate to a medal, at long last? According to an average of various online odds, the Americans have about an 8 percent chance to win gold before adjusting for the take, which ranks sixth behind Canada, Sweden, Great Britain, Switzerland and Japan. Those aren’t great odds, but they are no worse than those faced by their counterparts on the men’s side en route to glory in 2018.