As they’re being hotly contested in frigid Portage la Prairie, Man., it would be easy to write off the Canadian mixed doubles curling trials as a bit of a novelty.
The event puts a twist on a well-loved Canadian pastime. The stories of fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and players from disparate provinces teaming up to chase the elusive Olympic dream are as quirky as they are heartwarming.
But as you watch the matches unfold and the playoffs approach with the end goal of making it to the Games in a brand-new Olympic discipline, you get the sense there is something more significant at play in Portage this week.
These trials are living proof that when it comes to the concept of equal opportunity for men and women in sport, the Olympics are rapidly changing.
Mixed doubles curling is one of four new events to be introduced in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February. The others are mass start long track speed skating, big air snowboarding and alpine skiing’s team event. The addition of these medal competitions to the Olympic roster will bring the number of men and women who compete at these Games very close to equal levels for the first time.
More importantly, the trend to make men and women partners while competing concurrently for the same prize continues. Figure skating’s team event and luge’s mixed team relay joined the program in 2014. At the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, mixed team relays in swimming, track and field and triathlon will make their debut. In addition, there will be mixed team events in judo, table tennis and archery.
There is little doubt that men and women contributing as equally productive members of the same team is the way the Olympics will grow in the near future.
That’s evident at the mixed doubles curling trials, where Olympic champions like Jennifer Jones and Mark Nichols find common ground.
While both are excellent technicians and shot makers, Nichols often defers to her tactical abilities. Jones, who was heavily disappointed at not winning the chance to defend her 2014 Olympic women’s title, leapt at the opportunity to explore a different possibility with a player like Nichols, who won Olympic men’s gold in Turin in 2006 with Brad Gushue.
Nichols is a player Jones respects.
“There are so many curlers in Canada who won’t play at the Olympics but who deserve the opportunity to be there. We are so deep in this sport in this country,” Jones said following a narrow victory. “This is great for the sport in general and in Canada because it presents another chance.”
For his part, Nichols marvelled at the game-saving shot Jones had made while explaining that his decision to enter into the alliance was made with a reverence for the Manitoba skip’s talents as a player.
“After the disappointment of the team trials and not making it as a member of Brad Gushue’s foursome, I wasn’t thinking about this seriously,” Nichols said. “But when Jennifer called and asked me to consider it, my wife told me I’d be crazy not to try and to take the opportunity to play with a champion like her. It was another hope to get to the Olympics, but in a completely different way.”
As you watch the matches, you are immediately struck by the conversations that occur between teammates. Decision-making is a shared responsibility. Both players, male and female, perform the same tasks. Both play a hitting game, throwing big-weight take-outs while also demonstrating remarkable precision with draws to the button.
Some of the men, like Reid Carruthers, who won a silver medal at the last world championships in mixed doubles with Joanne Courtney, count heavily on the powerful sweeping of female partners like Jill Officer.
The dynamics speak loudly to a level playing surface regardless of gender.
“It’s just natural to us,” said mixed doubles national team coach Jeff Stoughton, who has twice been a world champion in the traditional brand of curling. “The cultural significance and traditional growth of curling at the local level has always been about men and women on the same team.
“Mixed curling has been around forever. Our parents all played on mixed teams at the local club.”
Subconsciously and without giving it a second thought, Stoughton revealed with that statement that curling is one of the pioneers of gender equity in sport and continues to attract fans internationally based on equal opportunity for men and women.
“This says something about the community of curling and sometimes we just take it for granted,” he said.
“Men and women compete for the same goals and aspirations in the sport of curling and often on the same team. It’s just in our DNA. And now, because this event is going into the Olympics, that part of our nature is in the spotlight.”
The grandstands at the arena in Portage are filling up as the moment of truth nears. In the final match on Sunday, only one duo will realize an ambition. The members of that team will become Olympians.
Going forward there will be one woman and one man to play as partners with a chance to chase the same gold medal in South Korea.
This is about much more than a novelty. This embodies the evolution of the Olympics.
And in this day and age, where women and men strive to find a mutual understanding, this is a good thing for sport and for society in general.