Important qualification event gives Olympics its final challengers

  • Czech Republic's Anna Kubeskova Photo © WCF / Céline Stucki

Lisbon, 2004. Greece win their first European Football Championship against the host nation Portugal, in a story that shocked the sporting world. They had qualified for the finals ahead of European titans Spain, who would join them in the tournament. Qualifying was stage one.

The group stages saw them defeat Portugal and draw with Spain, before losing to bottom-of-the-table Russia. Yet, their first two results would see them through to the quarter finals. They would sneak past France and the Czech Republic, before meeting Portugal again in the final – and defeating them for a second time.

What does this have to do with curling? Well, the motto that I take away from this story is, you have to be in it, to win it. And the first stage of that is qualifying.

With the Winter Olympics around the corner, there are still two slots left in both the men and women’s curling events and those qualifiers will be determined at the Olympic Qualification Event in Pilsen.
The Greece story shows that anything is possible. Sport is full of many variables that can cause upsets. Although the favourites for both the men’s and women’s finals will likely come from those that have already qualified, these final qualifiers could cause an upset.

The Olympic Qualification Event was first hosted in 2013 in Germany ahead of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and this year’s event in Pilsen will mark the second event of its kind. Prior to this format, there was a qualifying league that was judged on past performances at the past three World Championships. This is still used to judge who is eligible for the qualifying event.

Despite most of the favourites for the Olympic medals already qualifying, previous performances by teams qualifying from this event, or being among the lowest-ranked to qualify, show that these final places may sprout an upset in the Olympic finals.

Looking back at the 2014 Olympic Qualification Event, the men’s qualifiers were Germany and USA. Although they would finish at the bottom of the table, the USA convincingly defeated a strong Danish team, who would miss out on the tiebreaker thanks to the result.

The women fared better.

Both China and Japan would show the strength of the qualifiers, thanks to Team Wang and Team Ogasawara respectively. Both teams would finish on 4-5, leaving them fifth and seventh and only one win away from the playoffs. Japan would beat Switzerland at the Games, while China defeated eventual silver medallists Sweden. They were certainly no push overs.

2010 saw the last installment of the old format. In Vancouver, Sweden and China would be the two lowest-ranked teams to make it to the Olympics. If under current rules, where only the past two World Championships performances are counted compared to three before, Denmark and Sweden would have faced the qualification event.

China would finish eighth and Denmark ninth. Despite those two finishing where many expected them, it was Sweden who showed their quality. 2008 and 2009 were difficult years for Sweden after the retiring Peja Lindholm left a void to be filled. This was filled by Niklas Edin, who has gone on to become an Olympic bronze medallist, two-time World champion and six-time European champion. After winning gold in the previous year’s European Championships, his rink made the playoffs, but would have been disappointed to not have taken home a medal.

In the women’s event, Japan and Germany were the lowest ranked teams coming into the competition, but surprisingly, Scotland would have faced the qualification event under current rules. Like Sweden, Scotland (who would curl under the GB flag for the Olympic Games) would see the emergence of a new star. Eve Muirhead was finding her feet on the senior world stage on the run-up to the Olympic Games. All three teams would finish on 3-6, finishing sixth, seventh and eighth respectively.

Although 2014 and 2010 shows some success, the real success stories come in 2006 in Torino, Italy.
In the men’s tournament, the two lowest-ranked teams were hosts, Italy, and New Zealand. Under new rules, Finland would have faced the qualification event with either New Zealand or the USA.

Italy’s unknown 23-year-old skip Joel Retornaz, found himself to be one of the stories of the games, winning four games, finishing seventh at the tournament, and defeating eventual champions Canada. New Zealand would finish bottom without a win, but the USA and Finland would perform particularly well. The Finns would turn heads, finishing top of the round-robin before getting the silver medal. The USA would join them on the medal podium in third.

2014 highlighted how well the last qualifiers can perform and 2006 showed that even the lowest-ranked teams can make a difference in the Olympic Games. In the 2017 Qualification Event, men’s Pacific-Asia finalists, China, will be the sole Asian side and strong opponents. Germany have been impressive this year and Russia are always a challenge. A dark horse for an upset in South Korea if successful in Czech Republic, will be the Netherlands. Jaap van Dorp's side showed their quality by claiming a victory over the Sweden’s Niklas Edin at the recent European Championships, handing the Swedes’ their only defeat of the competition.

The women’s side of the qualification event is just as exciting. China again should be among the favourites to qualify and have proven to be a challenge on the world stage. Despite a disappointing European Championships, Czech Republic have proven in the 2016-17 season that they are among the best in the world and the home advantage could pay dividends. However, the dark horse on the women’s side of the draw is Italy. Diana Gaspari and her team surprised many by taking the bronze in St. Gallen at the European Championships.

Many teams have exceeded expectations in the Olympic Games and this year should be no different. Core curling nations like Canada, Sweden, Great Britain and Switzerland will fancy their chances at the medals in PyeongChang, but there are still nations yet to qualify who could pose a serious threat to the expected medal contenders.

To follow the build-up to the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, follow us on Twitter, Instagram (@worldcurling) and Facebook (/WorldCurlingFederation) and use the hashtags: #OQE2017 #Roadto2018 #curling

by feature writer, Michael Houston