Monday, February 17, 2014

Olympic Curling: 2/17/14

With sports, I always think it's interesting to see how a fan base reacts to success or failure. Or, even, what they would consider to be a success or failure. For example, in the upcoming World Cup (this is soccer I'm talking about now), if the United States were to advance to the final 8 and then lose, that would be viewed as a major success. However, if Brazil did the exact same thing, that would instead be viewed as a massive failure. It's all about expectations.

So, after reading thoughts from people about how USA's curling teams performed in Sochi - some from people who follow curling regularly, some who only pay attention every four years - I think I need to offer some perspective before we "blow everything up and start over". Here's my summation of how our beloved curling teams finished:
- The John Shuster-led men's team finished in 9th, which is probably about right; they were the very last team to qualify for the Olympics, after all.
- The Erika Brown-led women's team finished 10th (last), only winning one game - by any measure, a disappointment, especially when you consider that this same exact team finished in 4th place in last year's World Championships.

Now, back to the men for a second. With a little positive variance, and if they had the won that dang Russia game in which they were tied with hammer in the 10th, then maybe they could have ended up 4-5 instead of 2-7. I think 4-5 was probably the best possible outcome for them. They were never really a medal contender. 6th place would have been fine, maybe even great. I don't think they're that far off. And the women's team, well, they pretty much had a meltdown. It happens. This team is capable of much better play, because we've seen it.

Nevertheless, now everybody - even the TV commentators - is talking about how USA curling needs to completely rethink how they prepare for the Olympics. Do they?

Well, it depends. As they themselves will admit, being in the Olympics is crucial towards growing the sport of curling in the United States. The "casual fan" is far more likely to pay attention and keep watching if they have a rooting interest, and for most Americans, that means the USA has to be there. Even if they lose most of their games. The USA doesn't have to be the best at everything. And, it's not like the countries at the Olympics are the only countries fielding competitive curling teams. "Last place" does NOT mean "worst in the world", it means "worst among the 10 best". Is being the 9th or 10th best curling country in the world really all that bad? I don't think so, even if the TV commentators made you think for a minute that we're actually much better at curling than that. (As much as like Fred Roggin, I think he focused too much on the USA teams' medal hopes, as if they were favored to medal.) Call that "10th best in the world" viewpoint "PR spin" if you want, but that's reality. These USA teams did not get free passes to the Olympics; they earned them.

That said, USA curling has a decision to make. Other countries are bankrolling their teams so that they can focus on curling all the time, instead of having working "full-time" jobs on the side like all American curlers do. That's what China and other counties have started doing, and it's paying off for them, at least in terms of Olympic success. China only has a few hundred curlers in the entire country, yet, both their men's and women's teams can compete on the world stage, because their Olympic committee made a commitment. Does USA curling want to do that? That's a call they'll have to make.

The flip side of that approach is, of course, that hand-picking a team and putting all our resources behind those few curlers for four years - or more - basically means shutting everyone else out. If you're Scottish, and want to curl in the Olympics...too bad! Eve Muirhead's team basically has that position locked away for the next 15 years or so. Access to the Olympics - admittedly, a very remote possibility - is actually one of the pitches our curling club has made over the years. Following the China model would take that away. But would that hurt USA curling? I don't think so. I mean, I know I'm never going to curl in the Olympics, or even anything close to it, but that doesn't stop me from curling. 99% of curlers in the United States feel the same way, I would suspect. The Olympics serve to show people that curling exists, and that it can be interesting, and the folks at NBC did a great job of reminding people that there is probably a curling club near you. (Unless you live in Jacksonville, Florida, unfortunately. Maybe some day.)

In any event, I would actually support a move to the "China" model: bankrolled, full-time curlers, at the expense of "shutting everyone else out" of the Olympics for the next decade or so. That's the only way we're ever going to compete with the Swedens and Scotlands of the world, because they're playing the game at a much higher level right now, and it's not close. Canada doesn't have full-time curlers, but they don't need to, either, because Canada has a LOT of good teams as it is. The Canadian provincial and national championships also do a great job of preparing Canadian teams for a world championships or Olympics, because the level of play in their own country is as good as, if not better than, what you get at the Olympics. In the United States, you can't possibly prepare for a game against Switzerland unless you leave the country and play teams from other countries frequently. The depth of curling talent in the United States just isn't there right now.

On the other hand, I'm kind of okay with the current system also, as long as we can keep qualifying for the Olympics. Like I said, being 9th best in the world isn't all that bad.

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