Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oly wrestlers not amused as they're out, curling is in

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KINGSTON, ONT. -- It didn't take long for the shrapnel from last week's IOC bombshell that wrestling was being stripped of its Olympic status to strike the sport of curling.

What does curling's status as a Winter Olympics sport have to do with wrestling losing its status as a sport in the Summer Olympics?

Nothing, of course. But that still didn't stop supporters of wrestling from pointing derisively at curling's continuing inclusion in the Olympics as yet further evidence of the monumental injustice they had been done by wrestling's exclusion.

"We are so far away from what the Olympic Games were, and we keep diluting it with other sports that are not Olympic sports," University of Minnesota Gophers wrestling coach J (yes, that's his first name) Robinson protested to reporters in Minneapolis last week.

"Curling is not an Olympic sport. Beach volleyball is not an Olympic sport,"

Wrong. And wrong again.

And what's more, not only is curling an officially recognized Olympic sport -- unlike wrestling, as of the 2020 Games -- but it's actually a growing Olympic sport that is poised to add a third medal at the 2018 Winter Games.

Warren Hansen, the director of events for the Canadian Curling Association and one of the men who were in the trenches in the early 1990s fighting to get curling Olympic status, says the chances these days of curling being stripped of its Olympic status the way wrestling was are slim and none.

"I'd put the odds at one in 100,000," Hansen said here at the Canadian women's curling championship on Tuesday. "It's all about the television. And the reality is there are three sports that are a big draw on television during the Winter Olympics -- hockey, figure skating and curling."

Through four Winter Games now, curling has garnered exceptional -- and growing -- television ratings not just in Canada, but also in Europe, Asia and the all-important American market.

Now, you can argue the popularity of a sport on television should have nothing to do with whether a sport gets Olympic status. You can argue such a special designation should be based on nothing more than the intrinsic athletic qualities of a sporting endeavour.

But you'd be missing the point entirely, says Hansen. "The Olympics is not about what's a sport -- it's about money," Hansen says matter-of-factly. "And it's not like the Olympics and IOC is unique that way. Is the NFL about sport? Is the NHL about sport? Of course not. They're about the money -- the sport's a sideshow."

If that sounds harsh, you need to understand Hansen comes to his views on the realpolitik underlying sport from harsh experience.

Hansen was one of the driving forces lobbying to have curling made an Olympic sport. And if you ask him now how curling got into the Olympics in the first place, he will tell you a story so convoluted it must be true: A spiderweb of a yarn that includes a Canadian skier betraying his country, a mysterious Japanese billionaire working behind the scenes; and the sudden -- and, to this day, inexplicable -- last-minute intervention of former IOC head Juan Antonio Samaranch.

History has recorded when the smoke settled in June 1992, curling -- which had been voted down by the IOC's program commission three previous times for inclusion as a full medal sport in Nagano in 1998, including just one month earlier in May 1992 -- was suddenly an Olympic sport after all.

So, again: how'd that happen, exactly? "I can't say for sure what exactly happened there," said Hansen. "But I do have some ideas."

But however curling got into the Olympics in the first place, the general consensus now seems to be it is there to say, whether the wrestling folks like it or not. Hansen says an earlier bid to have mixed curling included in the 2014 Winter Olympics was voluntarily withdrawn by the World Curling Federation in 2010, but then later resubmitted -- at the IOC's urging, he says -- for inclusion as a third curling discipline for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"I think there's an excellent chance," says Hansen, "that there will be three medals for curling in 2018 and the third one will be mixed doubles. The likelihood that it will be approved is very good."

While it remains a fringe discipline that has only existed in any serious way since mixed doubles was first included as an event in the annual Continental Cup of Curling a decade ago, Hansen says mixed doubles is no joke.

He points out that there has been a mixed doubles world championship for several years now -- last year's was in Turkey -- and that this year for the first time, mixed-doubles teams are qualifying out of each province and territory, just as men's and women's teams do, and will compete at the first ever Canadian Mixed Doubles Trials next month in Leduc, Alta., with the winner advancing to the World Mixed Doubles Championship in Fredericton in April.

Hansen says inclusion of mixed doubles as an Olympic sport would be a huge boon for curling, providing curling clubs the biggest international platform of all to attract new players to a more user-friendly way of curling. "We have to get past as a sport that the only way to curl is two-hour games with four players on each team," says Hansen.

Of course, should curling be successful in getting mixed doubles approved as an Olympic discipline, the next logical step would be to lobby to have two more Olympic disciplines created -- one for men's doubles and another for women's doubles.

Put it all together and it's conceivable within a decade, there could be five Olympic medals for curling, something that would only mean good things for a country such as Canada that still dominates the sport internationally.

As a sport, is curling anything like wrestling? Of course not. But is curling an Olympic sport? Very much so -- and a growing one, whether the defenders of wrestling like it or not.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2013 C4

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