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Curling kerfuffle opens up debate on self-officiating

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Curling has long had an ethos of sportsmanship in which players call infractions on themselves and work out the resulting response — perhaps “burning” a rock by taking it out of play, perhaps restoring a rock to where it was or would have gone. 

“Curlers never knowingly break a rule of the game, nor disrespect any of its traditions,” reads the second paragraph of the World Curling Federation’s rule book. “Should they become aware that this has been done inadvertently, they will be the first to divulge the breach.”

Sunday at the European Curling Championship, a pivotal breach was divulged not by the players but by match officials, and a debate has erupted over social media in the usually uncontroversial curling community.

The rule itself is clear. When a substitute enters a game, a rare occurrence, that substitute must use the same brush head (for sweeping) as the player being replaced. The penalty is a forfeit. See page 33 of the rule book.

The Norwegian team, in which rival skips Thomas Ulsrud and Steffen Walstad have united to form a dream team, neglected to do that in a game the perennial powers were controlling against England, which was only promoted to the top division of the annual championship this year.

Norway left the ice thinking it had taken a routine win, only to be informed by officials that they would forfeit.

Walstad took to Facebook to complain about officials’ overreach.

“Even though all parties acted in good intent, thinking they were following the rules as best we could, a small misunderstanding that happened after the game in all regards was already decided was enough for the umpires to put on their star of authority and point to a subparagraph,” Walstad wrote.

Though Norway clearly broke a rule, many top-level curlers agree with Walstad. The Twitter account of U.S. curler Rich Ruohenen‘s team, which has advanced to the semifinals of the Red Deer Curling Classic over the weekend, called the decision “Ridiculous and embarrassing to the sport!” Canadian curlers Ben Hebert and Casey Scheidegger agreed, as did Scottish curling veteran Tom Brewster.

One counterpoint came from curling official and coach Keith Wendorf: “Don’t ask the officials to ignore rules, learn the rules.” Wendorf also sarcastically suggested curlers should ignore the red light on a stone indicating an illegal delivery and just write it off as unintentional.

The World Curling Federation issued a statement saying little other than restating the rule.

Self-officiating also came to the fore in an incident involving future Olympic gold medalist John Shuster at the 2016 world championships in a playoff against Japan. Yusuki Morozumi‘s last shot of the eighth end sent a U.S. stone in motion, and it made a Japanese stone go out of play. But before anyone could stop the Japanese stone, it rebounded off the side bumper and hit the moving U.S. stone, stopping its momentum. In that situation, the curlers are expected to figure out where the in-play stone would’ve stopped if it hadn’t hit the out-of-play stone. The Japanese team thought it would have continued moving and gone out of play. Shuster disagreed, saying it would have stayed in play and in the house, where it would count toward Shuster’s score. Shuster wound up keeping the rock in play and then delivered his last shot to score three for the U.S.

Shuster’s team went on to win the game 5-4. They lost the semifinal 9-3 and then faced Japan once more for the bronze medal, winning 8-6 to give Shuster his only world championship medal in eight appearances. (He also has a bronze medal from the 2019 mixed doubles championship and, of course, the 2018 Olympic gold.)

The video is a little easier to understand (the controversy starts at the 1:40 mark):

Shuster had every right to make the call according to curling rules: “If a moving stone is touched by a stone deflecting off the sheet dividers, the non-delivering team shall place the stone where it reasonably considers the stone would have come to rest had the moving stone not been touched.”

Shuster was clearly uncomfortable in that position, and columnist Don Landry wondered if he would have avoided controversy if an official had made the call instead: “Perhaps John Shuster might rather not even have to make that call. Because he’d be better off moaning about the officials and a determination he disagreed with instead of being the target of the torches and pitchforks set.”

In recreational curling, leaving decisions in the hands of the curlers can literally force them to make a choice between winning or losing on a technicality. Every now and then, curlers end up with a negotiated settlement of sorts.

In high-level competition, curlers have already handed over one decision whether the thrower has made a clean release before the “hog line,” the thick blue line that is one of the sport’s most important boundaries. A light on the stone turns red if the thrower didn’t let go of the rock in time or touched it again after releasing it The system seems straightforward but proved controversial in the 2018 Olympics on a costly infraction against British skip Eve Muirhead where TV replays didn’t seem to back up what the light reported.

The debate over self-officiating has also come up in Ultimate (formerly Ultimate frisbee), as the game has grown in stature from a college pastime to a semi-professional sport. Many competitions now use “observers,” whose job is somewhere between that of a referee and that of a mediator. The semi-professional American Ultimate Disc League has gone a step farther, using actual referees akin to those in almost any other sport. The league still allows players overturn a referee’s call in their favor (basically, a “no no, I actually fouled him” call), but the referee has more authority than has been common in the sport.

Norway’s curlers might not object to officials in general, but the rigid enforcement of the broom rule has left them in difficulty in the European championships. They’re currently tied for fifth place, one spot out of the playoff berths, with a 3-3 record. England is in last place at 1-5, though they’ve been close in a couple of games.

The Olympic Channel has coverage of the European championships for the rest of the week (all times ET):

  • Wednesday, 8 a.m.: Switzerland vs. Scotland (men)
  • Thursday, 3 a.m.: Scotland vs. Sweden (men)
  • Thursday, 8 a.m.: Sweden vs. Russia (women)
  • Thursday, 1 p.m.: Men’s semifinal
  • Friday, 8 a.m.: Women’s semifinal
  • Friday, 1 p.m.: Women’s bronze medal game
  • Saturday, 4 a.m.: Men’s bronze medal game
  • Saturday, 9 a.m.: Women’s gold medal game

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Lindsey Vonn and her dog to host Amazing Race-like series

Lindsey Vonn
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Lindsey Vonn and one of her three dogs, Lucy, will host “The Pack,” an “Amazing Race”-like series where dogs and their humans compete in challenges across continents.

The Amazon Prime show filmed earlier this year and will premiere later in 2020. Production included a team of veterinarians and dog experts to ensure “a positive experience for everyone.”

Twelve teams vie for a prize of $500,000, plus $250,000 for the animal charity of their choice.

Vonn, the 2010 Olympic downhill champion and female record holder with 82 World Cup wins, retired after the February 2019 World Championships, four shy of the overall victories record held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark.

She traveled the last few years of her career with Lucy, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that she got in Italy in January 2016. Lucy required German, Italian and American passports to accompany Vonn on the ski circuit.

Vonn previously adopted rescue dogs Leo, a brindle boxer to help her through recovery from knee surgery that kept her out of the 2014 Olympics, and Bear.

Vonn’s previous broadcast credits included a 2010 appearance as a secretary on “Law & Order,” two judge spots on “Project Runway” and an episode of “Running Wild with Bear Grylls” in 2016.

MORE: Lindsey Vonn’s mom is tough as nails

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London Marathon mass event canceled; Kipchoge, Bekele still to race

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The London Marathon will not hold a mass participation race of 40,000-plus runners, but will have an elites-only event featuring the fastest marathoners in history on a different course.

Organizers announced that the World Marathon Major, previously rescheduled for Oct. 4 from April 26, will be restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Elite runners, including world-record holders Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei and Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest man in history, will instead race but not on the usual route around London landmarks.

They will run on an enclosed looped in St. James’s Park in a “secure biosphere” without spectator access. Elite wheelchair racers, including past champions David Weir and Manuela Schar, will also compete.

Before canceling, London Marathon organizers planned to use Bluetooth and wideband ranging to monitor every participant’s distance from each other, though they did not specify if the event would have still included more than 40,000 runners.

If a participant spent more than 15 minutes within a specified distance of anyone else, and if somebody had informed organizers they contracted the virus within two weeks after the race, he or she would have been contacted.

“Despite all our efforts, the fantastic support from all of our partners and the progress that has been made on planning for the return of smaller mass participation events that are not on the roads, it has not been possible to go ahead with a mass socially distanced walk or run,” event director Hugh Brasher said in press release.

Four of the other five annual World Marathon Majors this year were canceled — Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York City. The earliest major, Tokyo, was held March 1 with elite runners only.

Kipchoge, the Olympic marathon champion from Kenya, and Bekele, a three-time Olympic track champion from Ethiopia, were previously announced as headliners for London in the winter, before the pandemic.

Kipchoge lowered the world record to 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. Bekele clocked 2:01:41 in Berlin last September. They are the only men to ever break 2:02 in a marathon. Kipchoge also clocked 1:59:40 at a non-record-eligible event in Vienna on Oct. 12 instead of racing a fall marathon.

Kipchoge has won 11 of 12 marathons since moving to road racing after failing to make Kenya’s 2012 Olympic track team.

Bekele, the more accomplished track athlete with Olympic golds and world records at 5000m and 10,000m, has been a roller-coaster road runner.

Bekele owns two of the seven fastest marathons in history, recorded three years apart in Berlin. In between, he failed to finish two marathons and, in his last London start in 2018, clocked a pedestrian 2:08:53 for sixth place.

That was more than four minutes behind Kipchoge, who is undefeated in four London starts and has beaten by Bekele by at least 100 seconds in all four of their head-to-head marathons.

The Kenyan Kosgei took 81 seconds off Paula Radcliffe‘s 16-year-old women’s marathon world record on Oct. 13, clocking 2:14:04 to win the Chicago Marathon.

The 2021 London Marathon will also be held in October to give a better chance of holding a mass race than in April.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials results