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Sweeping Changes In Store For Curling After 'Broomgate'

(From L) Canada's team: skip Kevin Koe, third Marc Kennedy, second Brent Laing and lead Ben Hebert compete at the World Men's Curling Championships on April 10, 2016 in Basel, Switzerland.

"Broomgate." Yes, that's really what some people are calling it.

OK, it may not quite rise to the level of a "-gate" scandal, but it is bringing about some big changes in the sport of curling.

But before we get into what exactly the controversy is about, it's necessary to give a little background on curling.

Curling involves two opposing teams of four players. The players take turns "throwing rocks," that is, sliding pieces of granite that weigh between 38 and 44 pounds on a sheet of ice toward a target. The goal is to get your team's rocks, or stones, closer to the target, which is called the house. The center of the house is the button.

The texture of the ice isn't smooth. Water droplets are sprayed to give the ice a "pebbled" surface.

After the thrower throws the rock, two sweepers use brooms to sweep the ice ahead of its path. Sweeping lets the stone travel farther and curl, or bend to the side, less. On the other end of the ice is the skip, who keeps an eye on the way the stone is traveling and directs the sweepers when to start and stop sweeping accordingly.

Here's where the controversy starts. Traditionally, the thrower must be particularly skillful in how he or she throws the rock. But new broom technology has changed the equation.

"It took a lot of the skill away from the throwers and put it in the hands of the sweepers and the person that was calling the sweep," says Brad Gushue, a Canadian curler and 2006 Olympic gold medal winner.

As Gushue tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, the new brooms scratch the ice, giving some sweepers the ability to alter the direction of the rock unlike ever before. "And really it's just allowed top players too much control to the point where it was actually difficult to miss some shots on line," he says.

Players got upset about the new form the game was taking. "You really shouldn't be able to steer a rock down the sheet. That's not curling," Emma Miskew, an Olympic medal winner and Canadian women's title winner, told the Ottawa Citizen.

"When you throw a great rock, we want you to make the shot, and, when you don't throw a great rock, I don't think you deserve to make the shot," Olympic gold medal winner Ben Hebert told the paper.

So curlers and manufacturers gathered in Kemptville, Ontario last week to try to find solutions — with science. At the World Curling Federation Sweeping Summit, athletes and researchers tested more than 50 different types of brooms and sweeping methods. Researchers even used robots as a way to launch stones in a measurable way, and GPS technology to "map rocks," Gushue says. The National Research Council of Canada supervised the testing, according to the WCF.

Researchers will now pore over the data gathered and "formulate it into proposals for new rules and equipment standards," the WCF says. WCF members will vote on the proposals at their annual general assembly in Stockholm, Sweden in September.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.