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.
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?
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.