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Use of High-Tech Brooms Divides Low-Tech Sport of Curling

Curling Mixed Doubles Semi Finals during the Winter Games NZ at Naseby Curling Rink on August 27, 2015 in Naseby, New Zealand.
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Curling Mixed Doubles Semi Finals during the Winter Games NZ at Naseby Curling Rink on August 27, 2015 in Naseby, New Zealand.

Curling, the ice sport with brooms, is roiled in controversy over — what else? — the brooms.

Having evolved in recent years from its beer-drinking, chain-smoking, down-at-the-local-club roots, the friendly sport of curling suddenly has a debate on its hands that in some quarters has resulted in the civility, and even some gloves, being dropped.

Perhaps unsurprising for a sport that has something in common with a household chore, the issue involves fabric — specifically, something called directional fabric. The use of this material in broom pads is the latest escalation in an arms race among manufacturers seeking to help the world's best curlers guide their 44-pound stones along a sheet of ice as if they were controlled by joysticks.

Sweeping with the brooms, which more closely resemble Swiffer mops, is considered an athletic skill in the sport. If that task was becoming too easy, well, some curlers felt that it just was not curling anymore.

Many, but not all, of the sport's top competitors signed an agreement last month to shun the newest brooms. But with few regulations on the books and Olympic qualifying tournaments underway this month, the World Curling Federation stepped in Wednesday and issued new rules that set severe restrictions on the types of brooms that can be used.

It is not going back to hog's hair, but it is close — banning waterproofed fabric and "stiffening" inserts, and requiring all brooms to be available for purchase at a retailer.

"There's definitely some anger over it," Dean Gemmell, a former United States champion and the author of "Brush Like a Badass: A Curler's Guide to Great Sweeping," said of the controversy.

"In curling, we're generally known for being pretty friendly with most of your opponents. Even at the big events, you see the top players hanging out. But it's sort of taken that away this year, that's for sure."

At the center of the conflict are two Canadian companies: the well-established BalancePlus and the upstart Hardline Curling, whose IcePad broom had begun to garner attention last year from some of the world's best curlers. But when BalancePlus last month unveiled prototypes of its new broom, which surpassed the advances made by the IcePad, there was an outcry that the new brooms had made redirecting the stone too easy, thus diminishing the value of a skilled thrower and the strength and athleticism of the sweepers.

Soon, Nolan Thiessen, who is sponsored by BalancePlus, enlisted 22 other top teams to sign a pledge not to use brooms with the directional fabric. Now, at least 40 have signed on.

To Archie Manavian, the president of Hardline, the agreement smelled of conspiracy.

"This is nothing other than corporate bullying," Manavian said. "The bottom line is we have not changed anything on the IcePad the last three years. The complaints only started this year — the reason for that is our competitors are jealous of our success. Our broom is the best one out there — there's no question about it — and sales started to skyrocket."

Scott Taylor, the president of BalancePlus, said: "I can't really respond to his comments. The thing that needs to be done by his company or others is to provide equipment that's good for the sport. We'd hate to see anything in the way of equipment development that doesn't make sense anymore."

Of his company's high-tech broom, Taylor said: "This isn't good. It's like hitting a golf ball 500 yards."

Pete Fenson, a bronze medalist for the United States at the 2006 Turin Games, learned the game using cornhusk brooms while growing up in northern Minnesota. The new brooms, with carbon fiber shafts, allow curlers to sweep paths for stones, also known as rocks, in ways "it almost looks like they're on remote control," said Fenson, who has a sponsorship agreement with BalancePlus. "In the past, players that have the best feel for the game, work the hardest, are in the best shape and understand the game the best — those are the ones who were usually the most successful."

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As a result of the new brooms, curling has joined the list of sports that have had to grapple with technological advances in equipment that threatened the character of the sport. Golf clubs, tennis rackets and swimsuit fabrics have all required legislation by the sport's governing bodies.

Curling, which has boomed in since becoming an Olympic sport in 1998, has undergone an evolution in other ways: Its players' increasingly garish uniforms, and competitors who look like they spend more time hoisting barbells than beer mugs have helped generate attention.

While many of the stones used at the top level of curling are quarried from an uninhabited Scottish isle, there have been few standards when it comes to brooms — only that they not damage the ice, which for curling is full of tiny pebbles of ice, which the stone floats over. The sweepers use their brooms to create friction in front of the stone, speeding and modestly redirecting its path.

As a result of the scant specifications, manufacturers have had little guidance.

"Some teams are accusing other teams of cheating, but there's no cheating because there's no rules," said the Canadian Brad Gushue, a gold medalist at the 2006 Olympics. "The problem is the associations have been one step behind. They need to step up and say, 'Here are the rules.' "

Gushue noticed last year that teams using an IcePad had significantly more control over the rock than his team did, so after his sponsorship deal expired with Goldline, another major manufacturer, he signed with Hardline.

Charley Thomas is another proponent of the IcePad, but unlike Gushue he does not have a sponsorship deal with Hardline — or with anyone else. Thomas is far enough down the sport's totem pole that he has to cover virtually all of his expenses. But he has been a target of dirty looks and a few unkind words for refusing to turn the fabric inside out on his IcePad this season, which has been the best of a steadily progressing career.

Thomas is currently ranked 19th in the world and has victories this season over Mike McEwen, the current No. 1, and Niklas Edin, the reigning world champion.

"Some teams confronted us about not switching the fabric around," Thomas said. "It was more of an intimidation factor. I'm at a point where I'm not intimidated. If another team isn't performing as well as you are, that's where you need to look. It seemed like they were looking for an excuse why they weren't performing well."

Thomas said that unless Curling Canada, the country's governing body, issued an edict along the lines of the World Curling Federation's, he would continue to use the IcePad.

Thomas said he was in favor of standards, but he accused the sport's elite teams of not giving everyone a voice.

"We didn't sign, and we weren't asked," Thomas said. "It seems like a real self-serving thing that's happening from the top teams, like that's all that matters. I feel like I'm speaking out on behalf of those that don't have a voice. A lot of teams feel the same way, but they aren't able to express it."

The world federation declined to make an executive available for an interview, but its secretary general, Colin Grahamslaw, said in a statement, "A variety of sweeping devices has been shown to have an impact beyond the typical performance principles understood in curling."

He added: "It is a very complex area and one which will take some time to fully understand."

Whether the current stance by the federation will endure is uncertain. What many in curling want is more testing from independent parties, and also a more open, collaborative decision on how the sport will proceed — something not so easy given the sticky relationship with manufacturers. (BalancePlus is a sponsor of the World Curling Federation, Curling Canada and the United States Curling Association.)

"It's such a touchy subject with a lot of curlers," said Val Sweeting, a top competitor sponsored by BalancePlus. "Obviously there has to be scientific testing and a more thorough look at everything, but a temporary solution was warranted and needed. This whole issue has created a lot of tension. The W.C.F. had to do something."

Gushue said he would like to see a panel of about 18 people who represent a wide constituency in the sport address new standards, but he knows that will not be possible to do until the current season, which runs until April, is complete.

"It's an interesting argument in curling, is there too much control?" Gushue said. "What is the line to be drawn? Is it before the IcePad? The other side is the business. You want business to be more competitive, and clearly IcePad has made a superior product. Just because that's the case, it shouldn't be banned."

Then he steered the matter back to the main point, one that seems to go behind stones and brooms.

"So you have to go back to issue No. 1," he said. "How much control is too much control?"