Team GB skip Michael McCreadie, seen here at 2009 Worlds
photo - YadrankaTeam Great Britain skip Michael McCreadie is one of the world's most experienced wheelchair curlers, with decades of participation in other wheelchair sports. He feels that the time has come for the introduction of a two-tier classification that will force inclusion of more severely disabled wheelchair users onto teams competing under WCF rules.
"The original rule is a real strength of wheelchair curling. The game was established for players who use a wheelchair for “daily mobility”. Players within the sport, in my view, wish that original ethos to be maintained and strengthened," he says in a discussion document being circulated prior to the WCF semi-annual meeting set for Aberdeen in December to discuss possible rule changes..
"I am aware," he continues, "that classification attempts to confirm player eligibility and then seeks to assign individual players to a sports specific class. I believe the time is right for Chief Classifier (Dr Andrew Burt) and other experienced classifiers to identify minimum disability criteria for our sport as opposed to classification on a player by player basis."
He then proposes a radical change of rule regarding participation. Teams playing under WCF rules would be forced to include more severely disabled wheelchair users, the people at present being excluded from national teams focused solely on fielding the best athletes, rather than considering encouraging participation at all levels of disability.
"Most teams currently comprise of the most able wheelchair curlers who use a wheelchair for daily mobility. In the beginning there was the opportunity for more severely disabled players to compete for national team places. As the sport has developed across the world and the quality of play has improved, the most physically able players have started to dominate," McCreadie says.
"In the absence of divisioning within the classification system tetraplegic players, players who use power wheelchairs and those with cerebral palsy will continue to be non competitive in the current open class system. I believe the time is right to introduce fairness into the sport along the lines of what currently exists in team boccie (teams comprise of at least one class 1 player). Each team should in the future include one player who qualifies for a class that is representative of more severely physically disabled players. It may be as simple as introducing two classes into the sport for all players who are eligible. Class 1 would be the open class for all eligible players. Class 2 would be for players who are tetraplegic, players who are in the advanced stages of MS, some players with cerebral palsy or players with severe upper limb weakness or limb loss etc.
"I am not an expert in this area but I am certain that experienced classifiers could come up with appropriate profiles. In speaking to fellow national and international players I believe there is support for the introduction of a two tier system of classification that encourages, develops and retains the involvement of wheelchair players with more severe physical impairments while at the same time ensuring it retains its original aim of being a sport for non ambulant players only."
It is undeniable that where teams are selected by national associations seeking the best chance for a medal in return for their financial support, wheelchair curling has become a sport geared to the most athletic. Indeed, it was specifically mandated by Canada's "Own The Podium" program, a major funder, that the selectors choose the best available athletes, and then coach them to excellence.
The question is whether that is bad for the sport, and if it is, does mandating inclusion of players of less physical strength serve a useful purpose? Michael thinks that it does.
"It's all about participation, Eric," he told me when I expressed some scepticism about his solution. "We have to avoid the idea that unless you are some super-fit paraplegic or amputee, then it's not worth trying wheelchair curling because you have no chance of being selected for representational play."
But even if one agrees that allowing coaches and selectors to exclude all but the best athletes is bad for the overall development of the sport, is creating artificial categories beyond stating minimum wheelchair usage requirements a plausible solution?
It is worth noting that Germany's 2009 World Championship bronze medalists included a third, Marcus Sieger, who because of his level of disability would probably not have been considered for Canada, or Scotland, or Norway or for any of the teams centrally selected. He won his place because Team Germany were essentially a self-selected club side. Yet it would be hard to imagine that a physically stronger draftee would have performed more valuably.
(I admit to a prejudice against classification. I don't like the idea of being defined as a smaller percentage of someone else. I'd rather be 100% me. I also suspect classifications are at best subjective and at worst corrupting.)
The actual proposal for changing eligibility, to be presented by WCF vice-President Kate Caithness at the December meeting, suggests expanding participation beyond users who require a wheelchair for daily mobility, to include anyone with (specified) significant ambulatory impairments who is unable to curl without using a wheelchair.
My response to Michael's exclusion concerns would be to set a minimum wheelchair usage requirement and do away with central selection, which is the engine of exclusion, even at the cost of financial support for the favoured few.
Allow teams to come together, and those with the ability and ambition will find the resources to fulfil their dreams. The present system makes athletes nationalistic totems, surrogates for the political ambitions of their associations or the careers of their coaches. So maybe selection wins your country a medal. A week later, who other than the athletes, their parents and their enablers, cares?
You can read the full text of Michael's document, as written, as the first comment below. A response by Judy Mackenzie follows.