After another last-place performance by American curlers at the Sochi Olympics, the U.S. Olympic Committee put USA Curling on notice.
In a letter sent last month, the USOC said it has “serious concerns” about USA Curling’s ability to meet its obligations as the national governing body for the sport, adding that it could cease funding or sever its ties with the group if it did not make specific changes.
One of those shifts — giving a chief executive full authority over the high-performance program, which oversees U.S. participation in international competition — will be voted upon Saturday at USA Curling’s spring meeting in Minneapolis. The USOC wants the organization to put greater emphasis on winning medals at the Olympics and world championships. That has generated controversy among some curlers who want to maintain the group’s traditional ways.
The United States has won only one Olympic medal in curling, a bronze by Bemidji’s Pete Fenson and his team at the 2006 Turin Games. The American men’s and women’s teams both have finished last at the past two Olympics, an outcome that USOC officials have called “unacceptable.”
The USOC wants USA Curling to adopt some methods that have made other countries successful. But some curlers worry that could eventually end one of its most cherished traditions: the ability for any self-formed team to win the right to compete at the Olympics or world championships.
The Minnesota Curling Association will vote in favor of the changes, with the backing of many of the state’s clubs. USA Curling President Jim Pleasants said he is “cautiously optimistic” the proposal will pass. Even if it does, the USOC has warned that might not be enough to prevent funding cuts or decertification of USA Curling as the sport’s national governing body (NGB).
“I worry greatly about losing NGB status if people misunderstand the stakes and the USOC loses confidence in us,” Pleasants said. “If we’re not willing to do the things we need to do as an NGB, we’re going to lose that status. In our sport, the world has become better, and we have to do some things differently.”
Question of fairness
USA Curling is run now by a 29-member board of directors. The new model — which is used by the national governing bodies of most Olympic sports — would give more decision-making power to a CEO, leaving the board to do long-range planning.
The board already has granted the high-performance staff broad authority, and a modification it made to selection procedures for the world championships has been particularly controversial. In the past, the winner of the national championships won the right to compete at worlds. This year, USA Curling debuted a system that gives the world berth to a team that finishes in the top three at nationals and has the most points in World Curling Tour events.
The idea was to ensure the U.S. representative at worlds had experience against top international teams. Though a team skipped by Nina Spatola won the women’s U.S. title last month, the runner-up — skipped by Allison Pottinger of Eden Prairie — got the spot at the world championships because of its points.
“That was seen by traditionalists as not being particularly fair,” said Kent Beadle, a member of the St. Paul Curling Club who sits on USA Curling’s board. “But the change accomplished a good deal of what was intended. It got more teams out playing more often against higher-quality competition.”
The high-performance staff also has proposed the creation of a pool of elite curlers who would receive most of the $680,000 it spends to fund athletes each year. The U.S. always has been represented at the Olympics and world championships by self-formed teams that earned their berths. Several of the world’s top curling countries now choose a group of athletes to fund and train full-time, then assemble teams from that pool to go to major competitions.
Many of America’s best curlers — including two-time Olympic skip John Shuster of Duluth — reject that concept as undemocratic. USA Curling’s hybrid proposal would fund and train 20 athletes and create teams from that group. But those teams would have to compete at the national championships and defeat self-formed teams for the right to go to the Olympics or worlds.
Fenson thinks that model is a good compromise. “I think the middle-level competitive player will always have the chance to live out the dream of going to the Olympics,” he said. “With this plan, all they have to do is win. And the high-performance team still has to earn the right.”
Some USA Curling members, especially those opposed to the new selection system for the world championships, disagree with the changes and want the board to retain control. There has been talk of clubs seceding from USA Curling because of concerns that it will become too focused on the high-performance program.
Others contend that what is good for the high-performance side is good for curling in general. “I think everyone involved in the sport would like to see the U.S. be in contention for a medal, because it could generate an enormous amount of national interest,” Beadle said. “It’s been a divisive issue, but in the end, I think people will see that.”