My first contact with the sport of curling came in the Fifties when I followed my father to the Thistle Curling Club in Edmonton where he toiled twice a week on a not-so-great curling team.
I’m not sure what caught my fancy about the game but I was hooked almost immediately and I struggled to find every piece of information I could about the sport. There was little available in those days as a formal teaching program did not exist and few books had been written. Three-time Brier champion Ken Watson was the authority of the day and his well documented books about the sport and how to play it were sought after by myself and other eager youngsters of the times.
Although the sport in those days was somewhat obscure it received a good deal of respect from the local media and really only took second place in newspaper sport coverage to the Edmonton Eskimos football team. The local hero of the late Fifties was Matt Baldwin who grabbed Brier titles in 1954, ’57 and ’58 and I took every opportunity to read or possibly watch my hero play. Baldwin had the smooth sliding delivery that intrigued me and most young followers of the sport at the time when a huge majority of the people that curled delivered the stone from the hack.
The game did not take a bad rap in the media or with the public and for the most part had the respect of other sports and the community. Even famed Edmonton Eskimo quarterback of the day Jackie Parker took up the sport and although his delivery of the stone was somewhat unorthodox the native of the southern United States managed to gain enough prowess to earn himself a spot on one of Baldwin’s teams in the early Sixties and he nearly won the right to play in the provincial finals.
When was the last time you heard of a high-profile athlete from another sport show an interest in becoming a curler?
My point. For some reason things changed and as curling began to gain more profile in the Eighties it also lost some of its lustre with the non-curling public and the media. It was then that I begin to hear the constant association and comparison to other sports that suggested curling was not a real sport and was only a game, not an athletic activity.
The jokes made by members of the media, desperate to appear funny, suggested that the most important thing for curlers was to meet in the club lounge after the game and not the game itself.
Part of this is due to the fact that top-level curling over the past 25 years has struggled to separate itself from league and normal bonspiel play and the water has been muddied further when some of the sport’s elites also partake in regular league play and numerous average bonspiels.
It didn’t help either when a few articles were written that suggested a number of the sport’s elite, in days past, were anything but finely-tuned athletes and a serious competition never got in the way of a good time?
I was part of the struggle going back in the early Eighties when many of us within the CCA worked hard in an attempt to set standards of play and appearance at national championships that would distinguish these events above all other forms of competition. This involved such things as the use of game officials, game statistics, official records, professional ice technicians, teams wearing matched uniforms, etc;. While we have been able to attain reasonable success in achieving many of these goals at national events the approach has only slightly spilled over to other top level curling.
I have always believed that if you want an activity to garner the same respect as professional sport then you must look professional and act professional or you will have no chance. How would I ever forget the fight in 1980 when the final decision came down that you could no longer smoke on the ice at the Brier. There were a lot of people very upset about the ruling. Hard to imagine now isn’t it?
And while good steps forward have taken place I think the sport still has a long way to go. The standards must be high for performance, conduct and appearance of the athletes who represent the sport at the highest level. It is these people and those who surround them that will set the image for the sport of curling against which everything else will be set.
I had a conversation with a person in Vancouver recently who was asking about the 2010 Olympic Games and how the city will handle the influx of thousands and what opportunities might exist for renting out his home to officials or even athletes attending the Games. I suggested that it was probably good and the fact that he owned a large home not far from the centre of the city could bode well for even possibly renting the home to athletes who might not want to spend the entire time in the athlete’s village. His response was that he could see himself renting the house as long as he didn’t get tied up with any curlers because of their reputation for partying. It was tongue-in-cheek, of course, but the message was delivered.
I jumped quickly to the sport’s defence, agreeing that while the average curler certainly enjoys a good time the curlers playing in the Olympics will be finely-tuned athletes every bit as much as downhill skiers and speed skaters. His response? Oh, when did things change?
I think all of us in the sport have a huge challenge still ahead to gain our proper position in Canada’s sport mosaic. If we do it right in 2010 not only will all of Canada be watching but also a large portion of the world.