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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Of Brooms and Men

Firstly, I want to point out that technology is a wonderful thing. I was schooled as an engineer and have a generally optimistic view that we can avoid a bleak dystopian future (at least until our Sun reaches super nova) by aligning our great scientific minds to create advancements for the betterment of humankind. Just think about what we've already accomplished. The wheel. The printing press. The Internet (brought to you by Al Gore). Figuring out how to deep fry a snickers bar. Inventing a sensor for a new wi-fi enabled fridge that will update your mobile phone to tell you when your meatloaf has gone bad. Yes, the future does look bright, and not just because carbon emissions are heating the planet. This does not mean I'm naive to the possibility we will soon live in a world resembling Bladerunner and have oceanfront property in Arizona. I'm just hopeful we can avoid that outcome with the use of technology.

When it comes to feelings about high tech advancement in Sports, the glass appears more half-empty to me. When I was younger, my favorite players and athletes were "throwbacks" who "play the game the right way". Some of this nostalgia is misleading when you realize that many legendary players were racist, violent and possibly criminal. Yes, I'm talking about Ty Cobb, but there were many others. In any case, I prefered a player like Will Clark, first basemen for the San Francisco Giants over a Deion Sanders of the Cowboys/Braves. Will's Wikipedia page previously (now removed) suggested he could have been a better player if he had exercised on occasion and been in better shape. What's more throwback than that? How could anyone born before 1975 not get choked up seeing classic photos of Guy Lafleur lighting up a cigarette between periods? To me there is more appeal when sports heroes are regular guys and not perfectly shaped athletes who appear to have been built in a lab.

So where am I going with all of this? Brooms of course. Where else did you think we were headed?

The advancement of golf technology has improved my game (or at least kept it from getting much worse), but in the days of balata balls and persimmon woods, it was much easier to determine who was a true shotmaker. Today, everyone on the PGA tour can hit it long and straight. Back then, straight was a skill and length was a marvel.

Tennis seemed more creative when there were wooden rackets, flowing locks and multi-coloured wristbands. The power game of 300 mph serves from NASA composite rackets takes a little something away.

Featherweight goalie pads the size of giant shmoos lowered scoring, but thankfully were reduced in 2008 and again in 2013. This is a rare example of a sport scaling back advances to improve the game.

When the protection or well being of the athlete is considered, technology should be encouraged. Few will argue helmets in football and hockey, or lab designed sneakers that reduce injury in basketball aren't for the better. But golf and curling (Brad Gushue's recent fall not withstanding) generally have less need for advancement in the safety of its competitors.

But what about when technology changes the game? The skills required to excel at golf and tennis have changed based on technology, but people still watch and play the games. In the latter case with more pleasure from those same advancements that have altered the play at the highest levels. There is no doubt broom technology can help the club curler. The fewer heart attacks at the local rink, the better. But what does it do to curling?

Over its history, curling has seen many technological improvements. Most noteably, the move to push brooms from corn and improved ice conditions made the game more precise, but resulted in the need for rule changes to make the game more entertaining. There was a transition that many of us endured during the mid 80s to the early 90s, but thankfully the free guard zone saved the sport from a slew of 2-1 games and possible extinction. Interstingly, the free guard zone was largely driven and supported by the players. Sure, those pesky "old school" Canadians held out for a few years at a conservative 3 rock FGZ while the world moved immediately to 4 rocks, but eventually everyone agreed more offense made more sense, and maybe we'll see the 5 rock FGZ become standard in the future.

The broomgate situation that has exploded in the early stages of this season, also appears to have begun with the players. The governing bodies appear to be behind in taking the necessary steps to properly police those pesky sport scientists who are working on the roaring game. Now they are playing catch-up, and maybe moving a little too quickly. The World Curling Federation released a statement on October 30th that stated "This is a very complex subject...taking the time necessary...we believe it is better to do this "right" than to do it fast". Then they made a ruling in less than week. Not sure how your government operates, but 1 week for this type of organization seems to be relative to the speed of the Berne particle accelerator. Granted, they have stated it is an interm decision and applicable for the Pacific-Asia Championships, being held this week, with further rulings to come.

At stake in the short term is the possible fate of one company (Hardline and its IcePad) and the reputation of another (Balance Plus). Putting claims of corporate underhandedness aside, the key question ultimately raised by this situation is "what impact should sweeping have on the game?"

The rules of curling state something to the effect that equipment should not alter the playing conditions. Strange, because ice has been "fudging" from use of synthetic push brooms since their inception. Before that, the use of corn brooms and their "chaff" dramatically alterted the path of rocks on the ice. The very nature of sweeping is to help alter the conditions of the path of the rock. The intent is that following a shot, the conditions should then revert back to their original state for the opposing team. We know that this is never completely possible, (pebble is being broken down with each swept rock) but at least if the conditions alter in a consistent manner that each team can analyse and adjust to, it could be deemed more competitively fair.

I'm not as concerned with Nolan Thiessen or Ben Hebert's arguement related to physical conditioning and the elimination of "athleticism". The days of corn brooms for 12 ends, three draws a day are long gone and every advancement since has made it easier to sweep well. I'm not so sure the fans care as much as some players might and don't feel that's the primary arguement for scaling back the technology. Even the ability for brushers to make the rock do strange new things (like fall rather than curl) could be argued. Granted, if it reached the point where guards no longer "guard" anything then we're back to 1990 again and no one wants to see that. But if one broom can do "new" things, maybe we should be open to allowing some of this in the game and letting all teams take advantage? I'm not agreeing with this statement, I prefer that sweeping only make a rock straighter and go further, but that doesn't have to be the case.

Fundamentally Curling must deal with answering two questions: what is acceptable for the impact on the speed and direction of a stone from sweeping and to what level should conditions of the surface be altered.

I'm not going to answer these two questions, it's not a simple task. But in a sport that is over 400 years old, is this something that should be handled in the matter of a few weeks? Probably not.

I feel for the folks at Hardline and suggest you listen to Dean Gemmell's latest episode of The Curling Show with Archie Manavian, President of Hardline to get his perspective. You can also check out his previous show with Ben Hebert and Mark Kennedy on the same topic, or read up on the many forum posts on CurlingZone.

Also see CurlingZone's Gerry Geurts recent post here. A must read.

The fact this topic is putting players and their sponsors at odds is unfortunate, and seems to be encouraging a quick resolution, but let's hope the players, manufacturers and governing bodies deal with this properly to lay out a foundation for the future that can satisfy everyone. (Um, not much precedent for this but we can always dream). The good news is the broom issue could be dealt with well before the Olympics and curling getting major news coverage (not just the CBC but home of Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post) is always a good thing.

Enough about brooms. Baseball playoffs are over, The Slams are already two events in and I'm ready to do some traditional CWM analysis. Watch for a Masters write up coming up sometime soon...


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