Electrical engineering definitely isn’t the first thing anyone thinks of when the sport of curling comes to mind. Harnessing friction to make pinpoint shots and the sheer amount of screaming while doing so definitely pop to mind first. But the tiny LEDs atop the curling stones have become an unignorable topic during the curling events at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Every curling stone used at the Games is fitted with a governance system called Eye of the Hog which automates officiating of one of curling’s only infractions, hog line violations. Every shot in curling must be released from a player’s hand before it crosses the bold red hog line or else the stone is removed from play.
The Eye of the Hog system keeps players honest by utilizing magnets under the ice, heat sensors in the stone handle and red and green LEDs mounted in the stone’s casing to complete a circuit monitoring stone release. Green means good. Red means bad. It’s a pretty easy system on the whole that has kept players honest at major curling tournaments since 2003.
But the system hasn’t performed well at the Beijing Games. Technical failures in nearly every single curling match have seen lights malfunction or simply not work at all, forcing players to throw up an “X” sign with their arms and summon a human official to monitor their shot, the exact thing Eye of the Hog was invented to replace.
Players have shown visible frustration with the stones at times. “It’s a massive distraction,” Canadian women’s curling team member Jennifer Jones told the Toronto Star. “You lose lots of time because you have to reset and then your clock runs. So you lose time on top of having to go through your whole routine again.”
The issue came to a head on Monday when the World Curling Federation, which governs the Olympic curling competition, announced that it was suspending use of the system as a whole midway through the men’s and women’s round-robin tournament. “The handles currently in use will remain in place on the stones. However, the electronic surveillance will be disconnected,” the WCF said in a statement.
Noticeably absent from the WCF’s decree was a reason why the governing system failed more frequently in Beijing than at other tournaments. Hans Wuthrich, chief ice technician for the Olympic competition, shed some light on the issue, telling the Toronto Star that battery stability in some of the stones contributed to the issues.
Wuthrich’s diagnosis makes sense as the battery system is the most major change to the Eye of the Hog prior to the 2022 Winter Olympics. The electronics embedded in the stones were powered by lithium battery packs secured into the stone’s casing by screws for much of the system’s use in competition. That extra stability surely helps in a game where 44-pound stones are crashing into one another for the better part of 90 minutes.
But the new version of the system switched out the battery packs for standard AAA batteries with a far less secure housing. NBC captured a glimpse of the new innards when an official took apart a stone after it failed during the mixed doubles competition earlier this month. The battery housing looks a lot like what is found in the remote viewers used to turn on their TVs with a layer of foam between them and the stone’s granite surface.
Sure, this is a small problem when compared to other issues facing the Olympics this year. TV ratings are on track for record lows, China’s use of an Uyghur athlete to light the Olympic torch as a rebuttal to the nation’s human rights abuses against the minority population and buffering issues on NBC’s streaming platform Peacock are certainly more sour notes that widely exceed some faulty circuits. But simply from a sports perspective, curling is having a moment in the U.S.
The sport’s popularity has grown exponentially stateside after Team USA’s run to a gold medal in men’s curling four years ago in Pyeongchang. That same team, led by five-time Olympian John Schuster, is in the midst of another medal run this year, drawing those same eyes back onto the sport. And no one wants that specific conversation dominated by some batteries not staying in place.