A photograph taken at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games captured curling fans worldwide’ hearts. It shows John Morris, a Canadian curler, and Matt Hamilton, an American rival, sitting side-by-side, their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. They are smiling from inches away, with beer cans in the middle of clink.
This moment perfectly captured the spirit and spirit of curling. A sport that is best known for its speed but also loved for its socializing, it was an unforgettable moment. It is unlikely that it will be repeated in the socially distant world of the Beijing Games.
Morris won the Pyeongchang gold medal in mixed doubles and hopes to repeat the feat in Beijing. That’s what I love about curling. The ice is great and it fulfills my competitive drive. But the actual going to cool locations, playing against your friends, that’s been really difficult has caused a lot of angst in the curling community. The sport is built on closeness. This includes the pregame handshakes with opponents and the postgame drinking sessions in which the losers often buy the winners a round. This tradition, also known as “broomstacking”, was originally practiced by opponents to stack their brooms next to a fire and share a drink. However, it all fell apart after the advent of the coronavirus.
Curling competitions were cancelled. The athletes were not allowed to use the ice rinks. Curlers, as with many others, were also forced to live in isolation.
Beijing Games will be held in an accommodation and transport bubble, which is isolated from the rest. According to the International Olympic Committee, athletes are advised to keep at least two meters (6 feet) from each other except during competition. They also advise against physical contact such as handshakes, high-fives, and hugs — all common sights at curling matches. Slip-ups can have serious consequences. Those who test positive could be sent to quarantine and miss their event entirely.
Hugh Millikin is a vice president of the World Curling Federation. “All that’s gone, and that’s really a challenge,” he said. You can touch elbows and fists but it’s not the same. It doesn’t give you the connection that curling is all about. It’s something I worry about.
Millikin stated that the coronavirus forced some changes on the ice. The number of sweepers allowed to train was reduced to one, rather than the usual two. Curlers are often found grouped around the bullseye-shaped target at one end of the ice sheets. They had to stand out. Millikin stated that some clubs required their members to wear masks in order to practice the sport. This is because of the intense sweeping and shouting it requires.
He said, “When you sweep pretty hard, your breathing is pretty hard too.”
Many curlers had to find creative ways to train after the closure of icerinks. Kerri Einarson, two-time Canadian women’s champion in curling, practiced on a homemade lake Winnipeg rink. This is a throwback 500 years to the time when curling was first developed on the frozen lakes of Scotland. Einarson’s father, along with a neighbor, cleared the lake’s surface of ice and drilled in a piece of wood to act as a hack. This is the block curlers use to push off before sliding down the ice.
Pandemic-related store closings made it impossible to purchase paint. They were therefore unable to mark the frozen ice with a target. Einarson found the experience to be a great help despite the fact that he was unable to socialize due to the lack of opportunities.
She said, “We couldn’t even celebrate wins after we were in a bubble.” It didn’t feel like winning which was hard. Even after you got home, it was difficult to go out with friends and celebrate with them. It wasn’t like curling at all.
Dean Gemmell from USA Curling, director of curling development, stated that the U.S. Olympic Curling Teams were most stressed by the cancellations of critical competitions. They could only practice for long periods of time, which was difficult. Minnesota and Wisconsin players had to travel great distances to find open skating rinks. They also had to manage their families and jobs.
Gemmell stated that the teams participated in scrimmages, but these don’t prepare the players for the Olympics like real competitions.
He said, “A large part of it is just learning to control your emotions during events that matter.”
However, despite the nostalgia many curlers have for the beer-sharing days of yesteryear, curling’s social side is what makes it dangerous during a pandemic. Canadian doctors conducted a study last year that found that a major transmission route was not on the ice but at the buffet lunches of curlers. Only one of the 18 participating teams was able to avoid contracting the virus. It was the team who avoided the lunches or other social events.
COVID-19 almost ended the hopes of Tahli Gil, who was part of Australia’s first ever curling team that made it to the Olympics. The Australian Olympic Committee announced that Gill and her teammate had to be withdrawn after Gill, who was infected with the coronavirus prior to the Games, received a series positive tests. Later in the day, however, the committee announced that Gill’s levels were within acceptable limits. The Australians were then allowed to compete and won their first Olympic game against Switzerland.
Gill stated that she was grateful for some competitions being able to proceed before heading to Beijing. However, the isolation had been hard on her.
She said, “Curling can be a very family-oriented thing.” It’s slowly returning to normal, I suppose. It’s not clear if it will ever return to the old normal.