COVID-19 robs Olympic curlers of their beloved social culture

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SYDNEY – There is a photo from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics that captured the hearts of curling fans around the world. In it, Canadian curler John Morris and American rival Matt Hamilton sit side by side, arms draped around each other’s shoulders, smiling faces inches apart, half-tinted beer cans.

It was a moment that perfectly captured the spirit of curling, a sport best known for its sweeping but perhaps best loved for its socializing. Still, it’s a moment that will likely be impossible to repeat in the socially distanced world of the Beijing Games.

“One of the things I love about curling is being able to play against my friends and then enjoy a weekend or a week around them, as well as playing cards and having a drink. beer,” said Morris, who won the mixed doubles gold medal. in Pyeongchang and hopes to do the same in Beijing. “It’s the best part of curling. On the ice it’s great, and it fulfills my competitive motivation, but going to cool places, playing with and against your friends, it’s really hard.

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Of all the cruelties of COVID-19, the necessity of distancing has caused particular angst in the curling community. It’s a sport built around closeness, from pre-game handshakes between opponents to post-game drinking sessions, in which the winners typically buy the losers a game. This tradition, dubbed “broomstacking” for the quirky practice of opponents stacking their brooms in front of a fire after a match and sharing a drink, all but died out after the emergence of the coronavirus.

Curling competitions have been cancelled. The rinks where the athletes trained were closed. And curlers, like much of the world, have been forced into isolation.

The Beijing Games take place in an accommodation and transport bubble cut off from the rest of the city. The International Olympic Committee’s handbook warns athletes to stay at least 2 meters (6 feet) apart except during competition and to minimize any physical interaction ‘such as hugs, high-fives and handshakes’ de main” – common sights at curling matches. The stakes of slippages are enormous; those who test positive are sent to quarantine and could miss their event altogether.

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Goodbye broom.

“It’s all gone, and that’s a real challenge,” World Curling Federation vice-president Hugh Millikin said. “You hit fists or elbows, but it’s just not the same thing and it doesn’t necessarily give you that bond with your opponent that really is the cornerstone of what curling is about. I certainly have concerns about how quickly we can get back to it.

On the ice, the coronavirus has also forced changes, Millikin said. Training sessions have been adjusted to limit the number of sweepers to one at a time, instead of the usual two. While the curlers usually cluster around the house – the bubble-shaped target at the end of the ice cap – they had to keep clear. And some curling clubs required players to train in masks, which is difficult given the vigorous sweeping and frequent shouting the game requires, Millikin said.

“When you sweep hard enough, you also breathe hard enough,” he said.

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The closing of rinks has forced many curlers to come up with creative training solutions. Two-time Canadian women’s curling champion Kerri Einarson trained on a homemade ice rink on Lake Winnipeg, a throwback to how curling was conceived 500 years ago on the frozen ponds of Scotland. Einarson’s father and a neighbor cleared a patch of ice from the surface of the lake and drilled out a piece of wood to serve as a hack, the block that curlers push before sliding down the ice.

Pandemic-related store closures meant there was nowhere to buy paint, so they weren’t able to mark the ice with a target. Still, the experience proved cathartic for Einarson, who struggled with the lack of socialization.

“We couldn’t even celebrate wins with anyone after being in the bubble,” she said. “I didn’t really feel like I was winning, which is difficult. Even after, when you got home, you couldn’t even go and celebrate with your friends and family. I didn’t feel like I was curling at all.

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For U.S. Olympic curling teams, the cancellation of crucial competitions has been the biggest stressor, said Dean Gemmell, director of curling development at USA Curling. For long stretches all they could do was practice, and even that was difficult. Minnesota and Wisconsin players had to travel long distances to find open rinks, in addition to juggling work and family.

Teams have engaged in scrimmages with each other, but those don’t prepare players for the Olympics the way real competitions do, Gemmell said.

“A lot of it is just learning to control your emotions during important events,” he said.

Yet despite the yearning many curlers feel for the beer-sharing days of their yesteryear sport, the social aspect of curling is precisely what makes it so risky during a pandemic. A study last year by Canadian doctors who attended a curling tournament that suffered a COVID outbreak found that a key transmission route appeared to have occurred off the ice, during the buffet lunches of curlers. Of the 18 participating teams, only one team avoided contracting the virus – and that was the team that avoided lunches and other social events.

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Tahli Gill, a member of Australia’s first curling team to make it to the Olympics, got seven games at the Olympics before returning a series of positive tests. She and teammate Dean Hewitt were forced out and finished 0-7 in the round robin.

Before the games started, she said she and many other curlers were just grateful that some competitions were finally able to go ahead, but the isolation took its toll.

“Curling is such a family,” she said. “It’s slowly coming back to the new normal, I guess. I don’t know if it will ever be the same. »

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