December 14, 2019

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Opinion

Mixed doubles curling was preposterous -- until it suddenly wasn't

Aaron Favila / The Associated Press</p><p>Canada's John Morris, left, and Kaitlyn Lawes plan their next move during their mixed doubles curling match against Norway at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea on Thursday.</p>

Aaron Favila / The Associated Press

Canada's John Morris, left, and Kaitlyn Lawes plan their next move during their mixed doubles curling match against Norway at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea on Thursday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/2/2018 (673 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

GANGNEUNG — It’s quirky, goofy and, hard truths be told, played by almost no one and almost nowhere.

And yet as of Thursday, mixed doubles curling is also now an official Olympic medal sport.

The last sport to be granted full medal status became the first sport to hit the ice here Thursday morning (Korea time) as mixed doubles officially got the 2018 Pyeongchang Games underway a full 36 hours before they’ll light the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremonies.

Who’s laughing now?

Roy Sinclair is laughing, that’s who.

True story: the former World Curling Federation president called me over in a hotel bar in Lausanne, Switzerland back in 2001 — we were both in the hometown of the International Olympic Committee for that year’s World Curling Championships — to ask me a question:

"What do you think are the chances of the IOC giving curling a third medal?"

Given that the IOC only three years earlier in Nagano had conferred full medal status on men’s and women’s curling, I figured the chances were slim to non-existent.

Plus, I pointed out to Sinclair that night, what third medal?

"You talking mixed?" I remember asking. "Because even people who play mixed curling think it’s a joke."

"No," Sinclair replied. "Mixed doubles."

"That’s not a thing," I told Sinclair and walked away, thinking to myself that the Scotsman had perhaps imbibed a little too much Scotch that night.

And until Thursday here at a little bonspiel called the Winter Olympics, I was pretty much right — mixed doubles hasn’t been a thing. Not really, anyway.

With the exception of the annual Continental Cup and a handful of European countries — the Hungarians, weirdly, have embraced mixed doubles in a way they never did men’s or women’s curling and have two golds and a silver at the world mixed doubles to show for it — mixed doubles has remained not much more than the hopeful contrivance it always was to begin with.

Years after that night in Lausanne, Sinclair — an engineer from Perth who presided over the WCF during some critical years from 2000 to 2006 — told me that he got the idea for another medal for curling while he was watching some sliding sports in Nagano in 1998.

"I’m watching these guys slide down a hill feet first and they called it luge," Sinclair reflected. "And then later on, they’d slide down the same hill, only they’d go head-first and call it skeleton.

"Well, if those two things are somehow separate sports with their own medals, I figured there was no reason curling couldn’t get a third Olympic medal for doubles."

Sinclair figured right. I still cannot believe it — and I just watched it here with my own eyes.

Oh sure, it looked like curling, if only because the entire Gangneung Curling Centre (located a half-hour drive from Pyeongchang) was lousy with Manitobans.

Melita’s Resby Coutts, the current president of Curling Canada, was there. So too was Gimli icemaker Hans Wuthrich and his longtime sidekick, Winnipeg refrigeration guru Eric Montford, who are making the Olympic ice for the next couple weeks.

Throw into that mix another half-dozen or so TV tech types from Manitoba who are here broadcasting this curling event to the world.

And then, of course, there was Winnipeg’s Kaitlyn Lawes and Winnipeg-born John Morris, who are representing Canada at this inaugural Olympic event, along with Winnipeg curling legend Jeff Stoughton as their Team Canada mixed doubles coach.

It was an down-and-up opening day for the Winnipeggers, who lost their opening draw 9-6 to Norway but stormed back Thursday night with a gritty 6-4 win over the USA that turned on a fifth-end steal of three by Canada.

"That was a huge victory for us," Lawes said at day’s end. "You never want to start Day One with two losses. And being able to bounce back after that loss and learn from what the ice was doing — I’m really proud of us for that."

Put all those Manitobans together in one room and you could have closed your eyes on Day 1 of Olympic mixed doubles and imagined it was making its debut in Killarney instead of Korea.

But while the people were familiar, this subset of curling is definitely not. Which is also, ironically enough, why the impossibly enthusiastic Koreans who filled the stands here on Thursday seemed to be enjoying themselves so much.

They cheered, sometimes even at appropriate times. They took pictures — lots and lots of pictures. And they generally put more life into the building than a geriatric Brier crowd five times the size does back home in Canada.

And why not? Think about it — if you’d never really seen regular curling, the sight of someone throwing a rock and then immediately leaping up and frantically running after it so they could also sweep it would probably be kind of interesting to watch, instead of completely ridiculous, which is what it actually is.

And also, it needs to be said, very risky — there are no spares in mixed doubles curling, even at the Olympics. Why? Because you’d need both a male spare and a female spare, which would double the size of your doubles team and put you basically back to team curling in a way.

So what happens if, say, Morris slips on the ice and whacks his head during a game here this weekend and has to withdraw? Canada would have to forfeit the remainder of their games and also withdraw, Stoughton explained to me recently.

That’s a sobering thought at an event where organizers announced Thursday that 128 people — including 20 here in Gangneung — have come down already with the highly contagious norovirus. No athletes have been affected — yet — but with the number of cases growing exponentially in the last two days you have to think it’s just a matter of time.

It is a monument to how much mixed doubles is still in its infancy that Morris and Lawes had practised just once together before they won the Mixed Doubles Trials in Portage La Prairie last month to earn the right to represent Canada here.

The guy they beat in the final — Brad Gushue, playing with Val Sweeting — had curled mixed doubles just twice in his life prior to Portage.

All of which is to say that Lawes and Morris won a lottery in Portage, at least as much as they won an Olympic-qualifying competition.

But if you think that means a gold medal in the mixed doubles final next Tuesday would mean less than the golds they devoted their lives to winning in team curling — Lawes with Jennifer Jones in Sochi in 2014, Morris with Kevin Martin in Vancouver in 2010 — you’d think wrong.

"Sliding over those Olympic rings will never get old," Lawes told reporters Thursday. "It kind of gives me goosebumps every time I get out there."

The general consensus here is that teams will need to finish at least 5-2 in this seven-team round robin in order to guarantee themselves a spot in the four-team semifinals. A 4-3 record might also qualify you, but you’d be needing help and nobody wants to have their medal hopes depending on someone else.

Because it’s curling and they curl for Canada, Lawes and Morris are still the gold-medal favorites after opening at 1-1. But that is also still going to be a big ask for a couple of curlers who are representing a country that has never won a world title in mixed doubles and which, until Reid Carruthers and Joanne Courtney won silver last year, had never finished higher than third.

Make no mistake, while a Scotsman was the driving force behind mixed doubles becoming a thing, what happened here on Thursday will ultimately benefit Canada the most, given our dominating history in men’s and women’s curling.

Let’s face it: in the long run, a third Olympic medal for curling means a third Olympic medal for Canada.

And while you’re pondering what that means, ponder this: if you get a new medal in speed skating everytime you add another 500 metres to your distance, why couldn’t curling have a fourth medal?

One word — singles.

Preposterous? So was mixed doubles, until suddenly on the biggest stage in amateur sport it wasn’t.

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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