Curling, the ice sport with brooms, is roiled in controversy over — what else? — the brooms.
Having evolved in recent years from its beer-drinking, chain-smoking, down-at-the-local-club roots, the friendly sport of curling suddenly has a debate on its hands that in some quarters has seen the civility, and even some gloves, dropped.
The use of so-called directional fabric in broom pads is the latest escalation in an arms race among manufacturers, whereby the world’s best curlers could guide the 44-pound stone around a sheet of ice as if it were controlled by a joystick.
Concerned that it just was not curling anymore, many of the sport’s top athletes — but not all of them — signed an agreement last month not to use the newest brooms. But with few regulations on the books and Olympic qualifying tournaments underway this month, the World Curling Federation stepped in Wednesday and issued new rules that set severe restrictions on the types of brooms that can be used.
It is not going back to hog’s hair, but it is close — banning fabric that had been waterproofed and requiring all brooms to be available for purchase at a retailer.
“There’s definitely some anger over it,” Dean Gemmell, a former United States champion and the author of “Brush Like a Badass: A Curler’s Guide to Great Sweeping,” said of the controversy.
“In curling, we’re generally known for being pretty friendly with most of your opponents. Even at the big events, you see the top players hanging out. But it’s sort of taken that away this year, that’s for sure.”
At the center of the conflict are two Canadian companies: the well-established BalancePlus and the upstart Hardline Curling, whose IcePad broom had begun to garner attention last year from some of the world’s best curlers. But when BalancePlus last month unveiled prototypes of its new broom, which dwarfed the advances made by the IcePad, there was an outcry that the new brooms had made redirecting the stone too easy, thus diminishing the value of a skilled thrower and the strength and athleticism of the sweepers.
Soon, Nolan Thiessen, who is sponsored by BalancePlus, enlisted 22 other top teams to sign a pledge not to use brooms with the so-called directional fabric. Now, at least 40 have signed on.
To Archie Manavian, the president of Hardline, it smelled of conspiracy.
“This is nothing other than corporate bullying,” Manavian said. “The bottom line is we have not changed anything on the IcePad the last three years. The complaints only started this year — the reason for that is our competitors are jealous of our success. Our broom is the best one out there, there’s no question about it, and sales started to skyrocket.”
Scott Taylor, the president of BalancePlus, said: “I can’t really respond to his comments. The thing that needs to be done by his company or others is to provide equipment that’s good for the sport. We’d hate to see anything in the way of equipment development that doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Of his company’s high-tech broom, Taylor said: “This isn’t good. It’s like hitting a golf ball 500 yards.”
Pete Fenson, a bronze medalist for the U.S. at the 2006 Turin Olympic Games, learned the game using corn husk brooms while growing up in northern Minnesota. The new brooms, with carbon fiber shafts, allow curlers to sweep rocks in ways “it almost looks like they’re on remote control,” said Fenson, who has a sponsorship agreement with BalancePlus. “In the past, players that have the best feel for the game, work the hardest, are in the best shape and understand the game the best — those are the ones who were usually the most successful.”
Curling is only the latest sport to grapple with technological advances in equipment that threatened the character of the sport. Golf clubs, tennis rackets and swimsuit fabrics have all required legislation by the sports’ governing bodies.
Curling, which has seen its popularity boom since becoming an Olympic sport in 1998, has undergone an evolution in other ways: The increasingly garish uniforms and players who look like they spend more time hoisting barbells than beer mugs have helped generate attention.
For curling, while many of the stones used at the top level are quarried from an uninhabited Scottish isle, there have been few standards when it comes to brooms — only that they not damage the ice, which for curling is full of tiny pebbles of ice, which the stone floats over.
As a result, manufacturers have had little guidance.
“Some teams are accusing other teams of cheating, but there’s no cheating because there’s no rules,” said Canadian Brad Gushue, the gold medalist at the 2006 Olympics. “The problem is the associations have been one step behind. They need to step up and say, ‘Here are the rules.’”
Gushue noticed last year that teams using an IcePad had significantly more control over the rock than his team did, so after his sponsorship deal expired with Goldline, another major manufacturer, he signed with Hardline.
Whether the current stance by the WCF remains is uncertain. What many in the sport want is more testing from independent parties, and also a more open, collaborative decision on how the sport will proceed — something not so easy given the sticky relationship with manufacturers. (BalancePlus is a sponsor of the WCF, Curling Canada and the U.S. Curling Association.)
Gushue said he would like to see a panel of about 18 people who represent a wide constituency in the sport address new standards, but he knows that will not be possible to do until the current season, which runs until April, is complete.
“It’s an interesting argument in curling, is there too much control?” Gushue said. “What is the line to be drawn? Is it before the IcePad? The other side is the business. You want business to be more competitive, and clearly IcePad has made a superior product. Just because that’s the case, it shouldn’t be banned.”
Then he steered the matter back to the main point, one that seems to go behind stones and brooms.
“So you have to go back to issue No. 1,” he said. “How much control is too much control?”