During the Canadian Women’s third round robin game of the 2018 Olympics, something happened to spark international conversation. As they made their way down the sheet of ice, the Danish Women’s team lightly tapped their moving rock, after crossing the second hog line, and burned it (it was determined that this tap did not alter the final outcome of the shot). This gave the Canadian team three options: remove the rock, leave the rock, or move the rock to where they thought it would have been if it hadn’t been tapped. Arguably, since the rock ended up where it would have without the tap, the traditional Canadian or Curling thing to do would have been to leave the stone. The Canadian team of Rachel Homan, Emma Miskew, Joanne Courtney and Lisa Weagle decided to remove the rock, shocking many and drawing criticism from fans and players alike (CBC, 2018).
The Longstanding Tradition
Curling has always been referred to as a gentleman’s sport. Players shake hands at the beginning and conclusion of each game, generally self-referee and maintain high levels of sportsmanship at all times. All one needed to play the game was a simple broom and a pair of shoes. Now there is more to consider when one purchases new equipment. The desire to have curling recognized as an elite sport often conflicts with the ideals taught to all beginning curlers. As a competitive curler the conflict between the old and the new is a difficult one. It used to be a point of pride that we self-policed, taking it as a deep insult when someone accused us of breaking a rule. Now we are encouraged to step back as technology and officials are being brought in as a third party to handle disputes.
Curling has a long history of being primarily social. Nova Scotia competitive curler Marie Arsenault recently lamented “It used to be that you’d walk into a locker room and everyone was friends,” the veteran said earlier this week. “And now, people barely look at each other. It’s all ‘game-face” (National Post, 2015). Gone are the days that teams come off the ice after a high pressure game and have a drink together upstairs. Now it’s more likely to see one team celebrating and the other teams getting as far away as possible.
Much like the Washington politicians discussed in Built Sport Spectacle, by Michael Friedman and David Andrews, the heads of the curling associations have had the interests of “visitors” in mind rather than “inhabitants”. The journey to acceptance of Curling as an elite sport has come with a cost. Each step has been about convincing others of the value of the sport rather than improving the experience of athletes. Colby Cosh’s article Sweeping the nation: It’s taken Canadians a long time to realize what a dramatic sport curling can be. We’re finally catching on is a perfect example of this. They write that “Every year, between winters, I tend to forget how great curling is –and then it sucks me back in, and there I am, shouting abuse at some poor accountant from Nipawin”. Those in charge of Curling associations work hard each year to bring back these fair weather fans that get picked up every Winter Olympics to boost viewership and continue to show television networks that it’s worth the investment.
Curling has been accepted as an Olympic sport, expanded its competitive tour and increased the profile of the National and World events. Yet it still seems to be falling short as the organizations in control work to bring on more sponsors, gain more attention and drive the sport, and its athletes, further from its traditional roots. Kristi Allain focuses on the male athletes, commenting that “as curling has become increasingly professionalized, there has been a corresponding shift to representations of male curlers that valourize youth, strength and aggression, in contrast to a previous emphasis on maturity and sportsmanship”.
With the pursuit of the elite comes the drive to innovate and improve. Before 2014, all brooms have been comparable in their efficiency, not allowing a team to have a significant advantage over another. Then came the IcePad from a BC curling equipment company. They produced a synthetic broom head with a more abrasive fabric shown to change the direction of the rock, a much stronger effect than previous broom designs have had. It was followed by similar products from BalancePlus, Asham and Goldline in an effort to keep up. These “frankenbrooms” were ultimately disallowed from competition after official determined they deviated too far from the core values of curling. Does Curling also need to implement sterner rules regarding sportsmanship to make sure we don’t stray too far?
Many people outside of curling have asked, “What’s the big deal?”, while those involved have been considering what this event says about how curling has changed. Soon after Rachel pulled the burned rock, conservation started nationally across Canada and it is still a hot topic months later.
It wasn’t only Rachel’s actions that show curling’s move from tradition, but also how people reacted.
“I think that was a rash move to take it off,” CBC Sports analyst, and 1998 Olympic women’s curling champion, Joan McCusker said during the broadcast. “They should have left it in play. It doesn’t look good on you.” (CBC, 2018)
“I wouldn’t have done it, but we’re different that way,” Danish skip Madeleine Dupont said after the game. (National Post, 2018)
It was an immediate condemning of her choice, rather than the traditional reaction of supporting a player’s decision (which was her right to make). This change of perception was the focus of Cathal Kelly’s article about the incident. He separates the general feelings towards Canadian curlers into before and after the 2010 Olympics. “On the one hand, we are still the pre-Vancouver lovable losers. Everyone likes us because all we want is to join hands around the world and make friends. On the other, we are the post-Vancouver killers. Our eye is constantly on the podium and we will walk over bodies to get there.” He makes the astute observation that in the past, observers would have been critical had the players not been Canadian because Canadians are polite and wouldn’t be purposefully unsportsmanlike. This is not the case any longer as the country’s best continually reach the podium in international competition. The world is no longer giving us the benefit of the doubt.
Does Rachel Homan and her team pulling the burned rock only say something about the progression of curling away from tradition? Or does it shine an unfavourable light on the quiet sexism in curling? It’s been mentioned by a few media outlets, but most notably on CBC’s As It Happens that this event would have been looked at differently if the Homan team had been male.
“I’m a bit curious, you know because we’ve had some tough as nails male skips over the years who might have done the same thing. And I’m wondering how much of that is feeding into perceptions and stuff that, you know, a lot of male players might be able to get away with taking every single possible advantage under the rules and maybe the ladies aren’t supposed to be able to do that.” – Doug Suerich (CBC, 2018)
New forms of media have helped to perpetuate the old fashioned “Boy’s club” environment present in curling clubs. When watching games on television, commentators often detail personal information of the female players that they wouldn’t during a men’s game such as their relationship status or the number of kids they have. The internet houses other venues for individuals to objectify female curlers such as the popular message board Curlingzone, an Instagram account titled “The Butts of Curling” and a Youtube channel with the username curlingbabes. A popular fundraising drive, while focused on raising money for a collection of charities, encourages the ogling of female curler. Each year, 12 of the top female curlers on the World Curling Tour are invited to be photographed for the “Women of Curling” calendar. The photographs taken in recent years have become more tasteful as people have spoken out against the objectification.
When Rachel pulled that rock, she unknowingly instigated months of conversation around sportsmanship in Curling. Can a sport be both elite and grassroots? Social and competitive? Has Curling moved beyond the days of sharing a drink with your opponent and into cut throat competition? Is there anything to be done to bridge tradition with the pursuit of the elite?
This incident has raised many questions and provided few answers. It illuminated the current state of Canadian Curling, be it good or bad, and may have also displayed a peek at the quiet sexism in Curling.