Do the Olympics Really Need Separate Men’s and Women’s Curling Competitions?

A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 14 2014 11:20 AM

Do the Olympics Really Need Separate Men’s and Women’s Curling Competitions?

women's curling
Claire Hamilton and Vicki Adams of Great Britain sweep the ice as Eve Muirhead delivers the stone during Great Britain's curling match with Japan.

Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

The Olympics, like fancy private schools, traditionally keep the sexes separate. Events in which men and women compete together, like the pairs competitions in figure skating and ice dancing or mixed doubles events in badminton and tennis, are rare. The equestrian events of the Summer Games are the only gender-blind competitions in the entire Olympic program. No one cares if the horses or their riders are male or female—they jump, event, and prance on equal terms. Otherwise, women typically compete against women and men against men.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

In recent years, the International Olympic Committee has encouraged a bit more gender mixing. Three of the events debuting in Sochi are co-ed: the team figure skating event and mixed relays in biathlon and luge. These new contests value women’s contributions without focusing on gender differences in strength or speed. To win gold in a team or relay event, a nation must be blessed with outstanding male and female athletes.

There’s at least one other Olympic sport where gender may not matter: curling. Although there is an annual World Mixed Doubles Championship, it’s a second-tier event; the Olympics and most other national and international championships offer separate men’s and women’s competitions. But why does curling need to be sex-segregated at all?

Advertisement

Unlike many Olympic events, which use the equivalent of ladies’ tees—asking women to jump off smaller hills or skate shorter distances—male and female curlers send the same stones down the same sheet to the same house. (And they score at about the same rate. As of Thursday evening, the men and the women had each played 23 games. An average of 12.56 points were scored in the men’s games, while the women’s average was 13.08 points.)

Co-ed curling is common at the club level, but I could find few examples of elite men’s and women’s teams facing off outside of made-for-TV-type competitions. So while Internet commenters might claim that men’s superior strength means they’d always triumph in a curling battle of the sexes, there’s no entry in the record books that could confirm or deny that theory. Besides, some of the women competing in the Ice Cube this week are full-time curlers whose training regime includes a lot of strength work. According to the AP, 23-year-old Eve Muirhead, the British team captain, “spends as much time lifting weights as she does throwing rocks.”

Though curlers need to be in good shape to send the 41-pound stones down the ice 20 times per game, it’s an exceedingly cerebral sport. Often called “chess on ice”—for some reason “frozen snooker” hasn’t caught on—shot placement and strategy are as important as brute strength. The gender-neutral attributes of endurance and mental alertness are also key. A 2009 article in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine noted that with each game lasting up to two and a half hours, and a competition like the Olympics requiring as many as 14 games to reach the podium, winning a medal can require up to 35 hours of competitive play.

That same article found that “sweeping is the most physical aspect of curling”—sweepers can walk more than 2.5 miles over the course of a game—and while male curlers sweep with nearly twice the vertical force of females, the force of their sweeping declines significantly over the course of a game, while female curlers remain consistent. According to the article, hard sweeping requires an average heart rate of 170 beats per minute, and since curlers switch between sweeping and delivering the stone, they must bring their heart rate down like biathletes do when they move from skiing to shooting.

Could the world’s best male curlers beat the world’s best women? Based on my in-depth study of the sport for two weeks every four years, I’d have to say probably. Men’s matches tend to feature more dramatic takeouts that send stones flying out of the house, but the biggest difference—at least to my eyes—is that the men appear to make fewer misses. Cheryl Bernard, who led Canada’s women to a silver medal in the 2010 Olympics and knows a little bit more about curling than me, says: “the top women’s teams can make the same shots as the men. It’s just that the men can do a little bit more because of their physical size.” Bernard’s team narrowly lost to Canada’s gold-medal-winning men’s team in 2011.

The World Curling Federation wants to add a mixed doubles event to the program of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. I wouldn’t mind that—mo’ curling, mo’ better—as long as they don’t mess with the women’s event. In the case of curling, I believe the Olympics’ sex segregation benefits women. On a mixed curling squad, I’m guessing, women athletes would rarely find themselves in the decision-making positions of skip and third. Women athletes make it into primetime for only two weeks every two years. I don’t want to lose a single female Olympian.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.