Curling — that Olympic sport where players vigorously sweep brooms to guide heavy stones down the ice — may be having its aluminum bat moment.
Somewhat like Major League Baseball never allowing metal bats due to fears that advanced equipment could trump human ability, the World Curling Federation, the sport’s governing body, is now being forced to actually address similar concerns about a new broom head. There’s just one major difference: The movement to regulate the new broom head is coming from the bottom up and not the top down. It’s the curlers, not league executives, who have had to goad the WCF to act.
“We’re all just kind of at the point where we say, ‘Hold on. At what point should technology be the determining factor and at what point should the athletes be the determining factor?’ ” two-time defending men’s national Canadian champion Nolan Thiessen told the Washington Post.
At the center of the controversy is the swatch of fabric affixed to the outside of the curling broom. In place of a smooth fabric head that has become the norm in the past two decades, the new technology uses a fabric that feels rough to the touch. Known as “directional fabric,” curlers claim these broom heads are making curling stones do things on the ice that seem so unnatural they could sweep athleticism and other currently necessary skills right out of the game.
At the highest levels, curling takes a combination of mental skill, accuracy and athletic endurance. The object of the game is to land more of your team’s stones closer to the center target than your opponent. The mental skills and accuracy come into play when the stone is slid or “thrown” down the ice. Brawniness applies when it’s time to sweep, which, when done well, can help maneuver or curl the stone around another to put it into position. The new technology, however, is negating all of the above, curlers say, by de-emphasizing the need to aim the stone accurately. The new broom head makes it easier for curlers, regardless of their fitness level, to sweep a path in the ice that could correct a bad throw.
“There’s a broom head to the point where me sweeping is more effective than [renowned curlers] Ben Hebert and Marc Kennedy sweeping together,” Canadian curler Wayne Middaugh, who serves as vice for Team Glenn Howard, told Yahoo Sports last month.
Middaugh belongs to one of more than 40 men’s and women’s elite world teams that have signed what’s being deemed a “gentlemen’s agreement” not to use the new brooms in competition — including Olympic qualifying events — while the WCF mulls its official position. But in a year when endless talk about deflated footballs may have caused the public to view athletes as willing to do anything to gain a competitive advantage, curling outsiders are quick to point out this arrangement seems fragile at best. All it takes is one team using the new technology to throw off the whole agreement. Curlers say they’re not all that worried that a rogue team will try to break the pact, though.
“One of the most beautiful parts of our sport is we are a non-interference team sport. We are genuinely respectful of our opposition and their skills and abilities,” WCF Athlete Commission chairwoman Ann Swisshelm said. “We begin our games with a handshake and genuine well wish and we close them that way. Our athletes, if they feel that a gentlemen’s agreement is necessary, regarding anything, I think that probably comes very naturally to the majority of us in the sport.”
Still, however, Swisshelm and the curlers who signed the armistice know the “gentlemen’s agreement” shouldn’t be a permanent solution.
“I think the short-term measure is that we find a way to ease the pressure that the athletes are feeling,” said Swisshelm, who competed for Team USA last year at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. “That’s my priority: to ease the pressure of having athletes make these decisions while they’re competing.”
Right now, the only real rule governing curling brooms actually pertains to every piece of equipment in the game — it can’t damage the specially pebbled ice surface in any way, according to the World Curling Federation’s latest rule book. Although the manufacturers of these new broom heads say the fabric doesn’t scratch the ice’s surface, the WCF has never conducted its own tests to ensure the claims.
On Oct. 30, however, the WCF said it was “our expectation” to make a decision on the new technology by Nov. 8. The federation declined an interview with the Post, but said in a statement that it understands the matter is urgent “as a number of world championship qualifying events are taking place in the coming weeks and these competitions are the first steps in the qualification process towards the 2018 Olympic Winter Games [in PyeongChang, South Korea].”
The WCF said its decision will take into account its own testing of the broom heads, as well as that of the sport’s stakeholders, including curling equipment manufacturers, but that the underlying ethos guiding it will be the same as the athletes’ — that “any technological advancements or innovations [should] have a positive impact on a sport and its traditions, and that athletic performance and mental skill are the dominant elements for success.”
USA Curling chief Rick Patzke has faith the WCF will follow through on its promises.
“I think they’ll get at it pretty quickly,” Patzke told the Post, noting the first chance for the U.S. men and women to win points toward earning one of the 10 spots to compete in 2018 won’t come until March and April at the 2016 Men’s and Women’s World Championships.
“I would hope that it is resolved before then,” he said.