ach winter the World Anti-Doping Agency publishes an updated list of prohibited substances. Last year it made one major change, though no one really noticed them do it. It decided to lift its ban on alcohol, which had been in place since the agency was formed in 1999. Wada argued that you don’t need a laboratory test to tell whether someone’s drunk, and besides the change affected only the four sports – archery, air sports, automobile racing and powerboating – who rigorously enforce the ban on the understandable grounds that aeroplanes, arrows, speed boats and sports cars don’t make great chasers.
Of course Wada isn’t in the business of regulating performance inhibitors. And, after many centuries of diligent research, there’s now a broad understanding that while alcohol may do wonders for your libido, temper and estimation of your own talents and abilities, it doesn’t do much for your athletic prowess. Different sports reached this conclusion at different times. Marathon runners were still using booze to fortify themselves during races in the 1900s, footballers were still taking occasional snifters of brandy to revive themselves at half-time in the 1950s, cyclists were still swigging champagne on mountain climbs in the 1970s. The list gets shorter every decade.
To Canada, then, and the little city of Red Deer, Alberta, home of the annual Red Deer Curling Classic. The Classic was in the news this week for reasons that, sadly, have nothing much to do with the skip Kody Hartung’s 7-6 victory over the defending champion, Brendan Bottcher. The organisers decided to kick Jamie Koe’s team out of the tournament because of what the World Curling Tour politely described as their “unsportsmanlike behaviour”. Wade Thurber, the manager of Red Deer Curling Centre, put a point on it in an interview with CBC. “They went out to curl,” Thurber said, “and they were extremely drunk.”
One of the four men, Ryan Fry, was actually part of the Canadian team that beat Great Britain in the gold medal match of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. That was the same Games where the curling journalists complained to the organisers because the only booze on sale at the Olympic rink was alcohol?free beer. Russia had recently passed a law banning the sale of alcohol inside sports stadiums, a prohibition that, the journalists explained, went against the spirit of the game. “It’s traditional for the losers to buy the winners a drink like a hot toddy after the game, why is that not happening?”
It’s called “broomstacking”, explained Canada’s mixed doubles champion John Morris. “It’s something they did back in the day. About halfway through the game all the old guys would put their brooms in the middle of the ice and go inside to go take a shot of Scotch.” Four years later the Canadian curlers actually brought a supply of Molsons Canadian out to Pyeongchang with them, a few cases in case. When one of the player’s partners, Shawn Germain, was caught on camera with a beer in each hand while watching one of his wife’s games at 9am, he gave the memorable defence: “I’m not a drunk, I’m just Canadian.”
That attitude might be why the New York Post once reported that during the Winter Olympics the Canadian curlers are “considered gold medallists when it comes to partying”. “If I were to reincarnate myself,” one Olympic skier told the Post, “I’d come back and do curling.” All of which raises the question, just how drunk do you need to be to get tossed out of a curling competition? That “extremely” Thurber used really needs some clarification. And it comes, luckily, enough, from the commentator on the Red Deer Classic’s live stream, who explains that Koe’s team got through “30, 40 bottles of beer and then started doing shots”. Which may explain why Koe, sent out a tweet, since deleted, with the hashtag #teamcorona.
There is some evidence that a drop of alcohol can actually improve your game if you’re playing a target sport. Studies conducted by the physiology researcher Thomas Reilly in the 1980s and 90s found that players actually got better at both archery and darts when their blood alcohol level reached 0.02%. Any higher than 0.05% and it fell off a cliff. It seems there’s a sweet spot, then, somewhere long before you order that 10th round of Coronas. In the circumstances, it’s a surprise to find that the team actually managed to get through an end before they got booted off the ice.
Fry had a particularly rough night. “He broke some brooms, there was foul language,” Thurber explained. A hole was punched through the dressing-room wall, too. Fry was, Thurber says, “past the point of taking advice from anybody”. At first Fry’s teammate Chris Schille complained they had been kicked out just for “funding the bar”. But a day later,the hangovers have kicked in and now they are at that stage where they are sending around sheepish group text messages apologising for what they got up to the night before.
Koe and his team weren’t punished for drinking so much as being bad drunks. But the incident still fits with a wider temperance movement in the sport. “I’m the last of a dying breed,” observed the four-times world champion Randy Ferbey in 2015, the kind that would “go curl your game then go sit and visit with people and have a bunch of beers and stay up till midnight. Teams don’t do that no more.” Instead, Ferbey complained, players were spending more and more time in the gym, or with their “physiotherapists and psychology coaches”. That’s time at the rink, ladies and gents.