December 13, 2005

Gushue/Howard Win Olympic Trials

Alan Adamson (of the Curling blog) and I have been having a drawn-out conversation about Olympic team selection in curling. Specifically, Alan has been objecting to the selection approach being used in Britain, and I have been defending it, to a degree.

The British approach for 2006 is to have a "bunch of administrators," as Alan puts it, assemble the "best" foursome from the members of the best rinks in the UK (read Scotland in this case). Alan, being a very non-interventionist, market-solution kind of guy, doesn't like placing that kind of decision-making power in the hands of the British curling association. Without defending the specific process being used in Scotland, I have argued that creating an all-star foursome might be, in some circumstances at least, the best way to optimize the performance of your team.

The Canadian Olympic curling trials finished this past weekend, and the selection process was the polar opposite of the British approach. The CCA kept their fingers out of the selection as much as possible, setting up a qualifying process that admitted 10 men's and 10 women's team into the draw, and then letting the teams play a bonspiel with the Olympic team berth as the prize. If you are a curling fan it was some gripping entertainment; Alan and I both agree that it would be a shame, from a fan's point of view, to see the Trials replaced by a sequence of training camps and player evaluations.

On the men's side, something quite interesting happened, and it has some implications for the Canadian selection philosophy. The trials were won by the Brad Gushue rink. I want to say "the Brad Gushue rink from Newfoundland," but that's where the interesting part comes in. The winning team wasn't quite the Brad Gushue rink from Newfoundland; it was the Brad Gushue rink from Newfoundland with Russ Howard from New Brunswick throwing second stones:

Helping Gushue along the way was Howard, the 13-time Brier representative and two-time world champion. The 49-year-old was added to the team a few months back, a move that drew criticism. Could such a drastic change so close to a big event disrupt team chemistry? "He's fit into the team great and he's become a real good friend," Gushue said of Howard, who brought a steadying influence to the team throughout the week. "He's a special player."

Gushue's team was not considered one of the tournament favourites — in fact his opponent in the final was quoted some weeks ago as saying that Gushue had no chance to win. Therefore, Howard is getting a lot of credit for the team's success. Now this is clearly an example of the type of "free market" solution that Alan advocates; Gushue recognized that his team needed to be stronger, looked around for a top-quality curler who was not otherwise committed and would be a good fit with his team, and brought him on as his fifth. After experimenting with different arrangements, he optimized his team's performance by bringing Howard to the trials as second, and now they're all off to the Olympics.

Of course, I would have to counter that Gushue's rink might have been even better had he switched out even more of his players, and if he had been able to select players from other qualified teams instead of just picking up "leftovers" like Howard! The rules of the trials prohibited this, from what I understand, allowing teams to change only one player between qualifying for and competing in the trials. I suppose that the rules could be relaxed, allowing a free-for-all of substitutions. But that would raise some tricky questions about the validity of a team's qualification for the trials, wouldn't it?

And if the option had been available to the players, would they have taken full advantage of it? I guess Alan might argue that competitive pressure would be enough to lead to the formation of an "optimal" Canadian team. I think that the players have many sentimental and irrational reasons not to be performance-optimizing selectors; I think that outside experts (national team coaches, for example) are more likely to be unbiased evaluators.

As long as teams qualify for the trials on the basis of their performance in CCA events, including the Brier, the teams will be mostly organized along provincial lines. As I have said to Alan before, Canada is so strong in curling that a provincial champion rink might be good enough to win the Olympic gold medal (although Terry Jones has doubts). For now, there is little motivation to change a selection process that is very popular with the players and the fans, and very easy for the CCA. When (not if) Canada loses their dominance, I am sure that we are going to see some kind of all-star selection process — it's inevitable.

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