Olympic curling qualification a burning issue

CON GRIWKOWSKY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:39 PM ET

Ever since curling started its road back into the Olympics as a demonstration sport at the 1988 event in Calgary, the question of how to determine Canada's representatives continued to been a burning issue.

An invitational qualifying tournament? Sending the Brier and Scotties winners?

Those two methods were used in 1988 and the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. Now TSN curling analyst Linda Moore's gold in Calgary was the only one in four chances, a disappointing result for a country that considers itself a curling hotbed.

There have been three full medal Olympics since 1988 and just two gold medals have been delivered -- by the powerhouse team skipped by the late Sandra Schmirler in Nagano, Japan, in 1998 and in Torino, Italy, by Brad Gushue in 2006.

Several formats have been used to determine teams worthy of a shot at the Trials.

Those included the previous year's Briers and Scotties winners, mixed in with money-leading teams on the World Curling Tour and winners of specific WCT bonspiels.

The early experiments fell short in their desired results. The weak links in the fields proved to be the teams that happened to get hot on one weekend, grabbed a spot but were unable to recapture their one weekend of glory and be comptitive with the rest of Canada's curling elite at the Trials.

Getting it just right proved to be a difficult task during the early part of this decade as a rift developed between the Canadian Curling Association and a muscle-flexing World Curling Players Association.

Edmonton native Warren Hansen, the CCA's current manager of events operations, had long maintained that curling's profile could best be raised with the inclusion of the game in the Olympics program. He was instrumental in getting the ball rolling and getting curling included in the 1988 Olympics as a demonstration sport.

Meanwhile, the WCPA had its own vision. It believed curling could gain more prominence through a vehicle to showcase the Tour and its players. The Grand Slam concept was introduced and exclusivity contracts were signed that kept WCPA players out of CCA events such as the Brier.

So, the CCA went it alone to develop a qualifying system for the 2005 Trials. When that was done, Edmonton's Randy Ferbey had qualified for six of the available spots. Yet, the same criticism of unworthy teams in the field continued to haunt the system.

Fortunately, peace broke out at the right time and the WCPA helped devise a system. Quebec curler Pierre Charette was instrumental in putting it together.

Much like the Grand Slam concept was borrowed from tennis, the Canadian Teams Ranking System (CTRS) found its roots in golf's formula for ranking its players.

Charette, voted in as WCPA president earlier this year, recognized that ranking teams strictly by money earned had proven to be an inaccurate indicator of consistency. And the goal of an entirely fair system would be to recognize consistency.

Usually, there are several WCT events going on each weekend and each event has teams with varying degrees of skill level and results.

An Order of Merit list was introduced. That list measured team performances over a two-year period and is used as a qualifying tool to rank teams for Grand Slam events.

At the same time, the CTRS used many of the same concepts to qualify teams for this year's Olympic Trials.

Most important in both systems is the Strength of Field Multiplier (SFM), which measures the quality of field based on the Order of Merit ranking on the Tuesday prior to the event.

Point values are calculated by multiplying where a team finishes (first to eighth in most cases) in the event by the SFM and totally ignores money earned.

To keep its options open during the Olympic qualifying process, the CCA tabulated one-, two- and three-year CTRS lists, giving teams several ways to prove their consistency and get into the mix.

One of the benefits turned out to be that 16 teams of each gender still have a shot with a month to go before Edmonton's Roar of the Rings, a much bigger pool than there had been in the past. Many of them clawed their way in after juggling their lineups at the start of last season and earned enough one-year CTRS points for their shot.

A dozen teams will battle it out in Prince George this weekend and the four survivors will join four pre-qualified teams in the final eight-team showdown for the right to represent Canada in Vancouver.

History has shown it's not always the favourite that comes out of the Olympic Trials.

Mike Harris was not considered among the curling elite in 1998 and brought home a silver medal even though he probably was too sick to play.

Brad Gushue, the 2006 gold medallist, may have been one of the longest shots on the board during the last Trials. He's in Prince George this weekend and trying to be one of the four teams that will be in Edmonton next month.

After a couple of decades trying to come up with a way to determine Canada's best team for the Olympics, the CTRS system at least is a more accurate reflection of which teams deserve a shot at the five-ring circus.

con.griwkowsky@sunmedia.ca


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