Near-Perfect Conditions for our Elite Athletes?

A lot of time and effort have been put into making the playing conditions at major curling championships nearly perfect during the past 20 years.  It’s now possible for every stone to react almost exactly the same on an ice surface that usually runs at a consistent speed of about 24 seconds from release to stop on a draw, and curls the same 3.5 feet for both in-turns and out-turns.  Add to that the fact that stones with tempered edges – to try to get consistent curl from side to side – that curl very little in either direction when excess weight is thrown, has produced a situation that critics suggest make it difficult for the game’s best players to miss shots. This is very evident at the top level of men’s play, where it seems a pretty safe bet to put your money on the team that has last rock in the first end. But wait a minute!  Didn’t we go through all of this in the late 1980’s, when Pat Ryan’s team and others like it were able to score two in the second end and cruise to a 10-end 2-1 win?  Didn’t we bring in the three-rock and then the four-rock Free Guard Zone rule to make the game more entertaining and to see more scoring and prevent 2-1 games? That we did.  And it worked pretty well for a few years.  But the recent development of near-perfect playing conditions in arenas where the top dogs display their skills has changed the trend again.  Now a few exceptionally good teams virtually dominate the game. When the world’s best golfers are playing in a major tournament, greens keepers don’t cut down the rough, or grow the fringe around the greens, or put every pin placement in the centre of the green, and away from the danger of every sand trap and water hazard.  In fact, quite the opposite is true. The U.S. Open has become known for its ankle-high rough, the surface near the greens either shaved short or grown above the ankles, and pin placements – especially in the final round – in the most difficult positions on every green.   While the average golfer might play a decent round on the major courses when conditions haven’t been prepped for a major, under U.S. Open conditions no one but a professional could shoot a respectable score. So why has curling gone to such extremes to make its playing conditions perfect for the games elite?  It was quite different in years gone by.  Brier games were sometimes placed on sheets with water sitting on the surface or week-long frost build-up, which could create situations in which a rock traveling down the side versus the center would need 10 to 15 more feet of weight to get the same result. And a team’s pre-game practice was never allowed on the sheet it was going to play on; the first end was the first opportunity for curlers to grasp the conditions of the sheet. Now, I’m not suggesting that we return to the crude conditions of bygone years, but maybe some new, exciting and fan-attractive approaches could be introduced to put a little more challenge into the surfaces. I believe the rocks should be made as consistent as possible and that the approaches used in recent years to ensure this should continue. The ice, however, could be more challenging.  Ice technicians have the talent and ability to create situations in which rocks don’t curl the same amount on each sheet.  And on individual sheets, the movements for in-turns versus out-turns and inside-outs versus outside-ins could also be varied.  Years ago, reading the ice and learning it more quickly than your opponent was a challenge and a big part of the game that doesn’t exist today. Practicing on the game-sheet should also be reconsidered.  Again, this ties into how much emphasis is placed on last-rock advantage in the first end, and what could be done to reduce its influence on the final outcome of the game. A wild idea?  Maybe.  But I think there’s a need to think outside the box in the next couple of years to ensure the sport continues to attract spectators and television viewers. At the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, curling will enjoy its highest profile ever – not only in Canada but around the world.  And it’s paramount that every possible consideration be given to making sure the sport maintains and increases that profile worldwide.