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Sweeping changes in curling

Quest to build better brooms in full swing

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Change comes to curling about as often as ice ages come to earth, and at about the same glacial pace.

So it's probably not surprising that the revelation this month that Cheryl Bernard's Calgary-based team was using a top-secret scientifically developed broom at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver last February has touched off some controversy.

In a sport where some folks are still bemoaning the death of the corn broom, the revelation that the Bernard Olympic foursome was using special brushes developed for the Canadian Olympic Association by scientists at the University of Western Ontario has touched a bit of a nerve.

The innovation was simple enough -- a piece of foil was inserted in the brooms directly under the fibre pad after scientists found it significantly increased the amount of heat reflected back to the ice. That, in turn, was found to make sweepers -- particularly female sweepers, who studies have consistently shown are much less efficient sweepers than men -- more effective in their ability to manipulate a rock after it has been thrown.

But while the innovation was simple, the idea that it involved actually inserting something foreign into a curling broom has touched off a bit of a debate in curling circles about where it all stops.

"If you can put a piece of foil in there," asks Jeff Stoughton lead Steve Gould, "then how about you put a zipper on the broom so you can stuff some of those hand warmers we all used as kids in there?"

Curling entrepeneur and inventor Arnold Asham, who's developed a whole new broom concept of his own this year, goes even a step further.

"How about I put a vacuum in there and get a patent on that."

Because it's never really come up before, there don't appear to be any hard rules at the moment on what you can and cannot do to a broom. It's generally accepted, however, that any aid that requires electricity -- like Asham's facetious idea of a vacuum-broom -- would never pass muster at the Olympics.

But Gould's hand warmers -- which are heated by nothing more than a chemical reaction caused when they are squeezed -- would seem to be not much different than a special piece of foil that reflects heat.

The Calgary Herald's Allen Cameron -- who learned of the existence of the brooms in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics but was sworn to secrecy until he finally broke the story this month -- reports the brooms were developed using Own The Podium money by scientists at the University of Western Ontario and that the patent has been purchased by broom manufacturer Balance Plus.

How effective the broom is in elite competition remains unclear. While the Bernard team did use the brooms in winning a silver medal in Vancouver, it bears noting that the Kevin Martin squad, who elected to use their regular brooms in Vancouver, won gold for Canada.

Asham -- who has invented everything from the red-brick slider to the delivery "crutch" over the years and is a pioneer in curling shoes -- has developed his own brooms this year that he thinks will be even more pioneering, without posing any ethical questions.

The difference in Asham's new brooms is the shape -- Asham has developed a boomerang-shaped broom head and a round broom head that mirror the shape of the curling rock, a first in a business where broom heads have traditionally been oval or rectangle.

Developed at a cost of about $250,000, Asham's boomerang heads are particularly pioneering because they are designed to fit together -- and will ultimately come with a hinge -- to allow two sweepers to, in a sense, become one.

The new shaped brooms -- and a regular rectangular-shaped one -- are also being outfitted with a new dimpled fibre head that is also pioneering, with its hundreds of edges designed to grab frost like regular brushes never could.

Jason Gunnlaugson, who is curling in Russia this year, is using the new heads but Asham thinks his market for the new brooms is much younger.

"A lot of the older guys are set in their ways," says Asham. "This is stuff that 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds, who are just learning to sweep, will take up and never know another way."

The new Asham brooms, outfitted with a carbon-fibre handle, are selling for $160-$170. A fibreglass-handle broom with the same heads costs about $75.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2010 C1

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