Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Guest Post: Every Curl Begins At Kays

Associated Press

My longtime friend and fellow International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) member J. Brian Carberry spent part of his summer vacation in Scotland.

His mission (in addition to taking the family to an Ed Sheeran concert): Visit the homeland of Olympic curling.

More specifically, the place where all Olympic competition curling stones are made: Kays of Scotland.

The following guest post by Carberry tells the tale, initially inspired by a national news story we both spotted a few years ago. Brian also suggested a video for additional context.

As told by J. Brian Carberry ...

“Oh, Boiling,” expressed factory manager Jim Bright in a distinctive Scottish dialect, as he walked out to meet me in the modest industrial granite yard.

The weather was sunny, and the sky was clear with a temperature of 74 degrees Fahrenheit on this spring day of May 24, 2018.  The yard was hot with the whirring of factory machinery in the background acting as a reminder of the heat index.

It struck me as a counterintuitive setting for a foray into the ice sport that is curling.

Korea Times
Curling is a sport invented in Scotland in the mid-16th Century, and along with its Summer Olympics counterpart of golf, it represents this nation’s contribution of sporting cultural heritage to the Modern Olympics program.

The inaugural 1924 Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix, France, was the setting of the first Olympic Men’s Curling tournament.  This Bonspiel in 1924 was held in a state of historical limbo for 80+ years.  It was seen by some as an official Olympic event and relegated by others as a mere demonstration until the tournament was officially recognized with full-fledged Olympic Medal status by the IOC in 2006.  

With the decision, the first, second and third place finishers were definitively elevated to official Olympic medalists. 

And at this time (2006), the 1924 Great Britain Men’s team that hailed from the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in Perth, Scotland, joined the women of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics Gold Medal team representing Great Britain as the only Olympic or Paralympic Gold Medalists in Curling from Scotland.

There have been seven Olympic tournaments for men, six Olympic tournaments for women, and one mixed gender Olympic tournament through 2018.  As well, there have been four Paralympic mixed gender tournaments to date.  

Scottish curlers won one-sixth or 16.7 percent of all Olympic and Paralympic gold medals contested.  Likewise with silver and bronze Olympic medals in the Olympics and Paralympics over the years, Scottish curlers have teamed up to win one-sixth or 16.7 percent of all the medals awarded at the Olympics and Paralympics under the flag of Great Britain.

Kays of Scotland in Mauchline, Ayrshire, Scotland is where the world’s finest curling stones, and those used exclusively in International World Curling Federation Competition including the Olympics, are manufactured from granite exclusively sourced from the Isle of Ailsa Craig, a distance of 34.2 miles away (according to Google Maps) in the Firth of Clyde. 

On the heels of an exciting gold medal-winning tournament for the Team USA men's curling team in February 2018 at PyeongChang, curiosity was piqued by a segment on CNBC to visit this singular locale for the manufacturing of Olympic curling stone implements. 

A family tour of Scotland was in the planning and development stages this past February.  As I followed the Olympic Curling tournament, visiting Kays of Scotland campus was a stop I suggested for the itinerary.  

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

At the appointed time on that Tuesday afternoon, our traveling group of three drove into the town of Mauchline in Ayrshire. There is little to no indication upon arrival that this is the world’s capital of curling stone manufacturing.  With the address checked and double checked in the navigation software, I found myself on an apparent residential street.  I happened upon a resident in the doorway of what surely was a townhouse, but might be a mixed use corporate office where all indicators suggest should be the locale of the factory’s address.

After brief discussion with the resident, I was directed to a small opening in a gate across the street, where was no visible signage.  

Unsure of the scene, I walked into a small yard and eventually spied some circular stones that could be in the beginning stages of the manufacturing process to become a curling stone - or they could be garden stones, I pondered.  

I ventured on with a veneer of assured confidence with my unsure family aside, like a wayward incarnation of a real-life Clark Griswold on some Olympian National Lampoon romp.  

In short order, we were intercepted by a concerned employee and politely yet firmly directed to an office where I sensed our arrival was not exactly expected nor understood. 

We eventually learned the contact who welcomed us (via email, weeks earlier) to come by for a tour was not at work that day, and I sensed no one was told we would be stopping by for a tour.  

In spite of this "surprise" visit, I was invited to examine a display of souvenir jewelry and miniature curling stone paperweights that served as a gift shop or at least storage for their website’s online gift shop.  

We perused the wares as the awkwardness dissipated, and an office worker tried to determine how to proceed with what is now clearly our unexpected arrival.

As I exited the small office to the yard, curling stones came into view in various states of manufacture or, in the case of those traded-in for new stones, stored for repurposing.  

I was politely informed that someone would be happy to show me around (perhaps escort me off the grounds) and briefly answer questions, and I was presented a professionally produced brochure.

On cue, the aforementioned factory manager Jim Bright appeared, wearing a work jumpsuit that displayed the logo for Kays of Scotland I recalled from the website.  For the first time since arriving, I was now convinced (at last) we were indeed in the correct place!

At the same time, I sensed that I was now the subject of curiosity. Who flies to Europe and drives out here to look at a small factory with their family in tow on holiday? 

After all, there were state-sanctioned castles and abbey tours to occupy tourists!  It also occurred to me I should probably be drinking locally sourced single malt whisky about right now.

Mr. Bright turned out to be a generous, albeit impromptu, host who indulged my questions and curiosity for about 25 minutes while escorting us through the small yet busy complex.  

I worried the extent to which we were keeping him from his work, and he informed me that his experience previously included manufacturing optical lenses to precise specifications; his skills were well-suited for the precision skill involved in fashioning some of the most unique granite in the world into world-class sporting implements that must meet very specific requirements.   

In addition, he informed me that he helped design the machinery for the production of the small souvenir curling stones that are offered for sale.  One such item inevitably became a keepsake/justification of our visit.

Kays of Scotland does not have a regular open-to-the-public factory tour and museum. It is not of the type of outfit found at the Louisville Slugger Baseball Bat Museum and Factory Tour in Louisville, Kentucky.  

Scotland is not the United States where such brand-based manufacturing tourism not involving whisky has a market I quietly determined.  

Perhaps this is rightfully so. Kays of Scotland is a small factory operation, and they have work to do.

I was getting the vibe that my family felt we had other touring to get to, but I decided the local Robert Burns Museum could wait while considering my own thoughts on “the best laid plans of mice and men.”

I was informed by Mr. Bright that this shop creates approximately 1,750 competition curling stones per year for shipment to locations around the world.  The process for each stone involves multiple steps of cutting, joining, diamond cutter lathing, setting and polishing.  

All of this happens after the raw quarried granite from Ailsa Craig arrives on sight.  In addition, the shop refurbishes for the recreational market or, in case that is not possible, repurposes granite for other products from old stones that are traded in on new orders.  

From afar, I peered into the facility that houses the heavy equipment that cuts and polishes the stones.
In the worldwide market for curling stones, Kays of Scotland and their exclusive mining rights to Ailsa Craig have a sole competitor in the way of a quarry in Wales where granite is sourced for manufacturing in a Canadian factory.

Geologists have determined there are two types of granite from the island: the Blue and the Green.  Both types are used in the component manufacturing for their world-class stones that players and aficionados have come to revere.

According to Mr. Bright, stones can last over 100 years, but time, use, storage conditions, climates, and differing ice playing conditions are all variables that can lead to stones eventually losing their action, grip or suitability for play at a given locale.  

Curling venues have house sets of stones that all players are required to use for play.  Individual teams and players do not travel with their own curling stones for play. For this reason, they do not sell stones to individual players.

In essence, the curling stones become part of the venue insuring Scotland’s role in hosting international Olympic competitions for the foreseeable future, and thusly contributes to the specialized niche nature of this business.

As I consider the path from a small granite island in the British Isles to the spotlight of Olympic Ice in the life of a curling stone, the Scottish bagpipes laden hit song by AC/DC comes to mind.  “... It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock'n'roll!”

Photos by J. Brian Carberry except where credited 

Forrest Gumping It At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

One of the many clever scenarios in the "Forrest Gump" screenplay is the title character's repeat visits to The White House.

Whether Gump arrived a football star, war hero or global ping-pong sensation, his run-ins with presidents and many bottles of Dr. Pepper brought smiles.

And though not a single Dr. Pepper was consumed on site, April 27 provided some Gump-like deja vu when this blogger joined the media pool for another Team USA visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

This second Blogger Nick visit to The White House featured many similarities to the first, which took place in October 2016 in the wake of the Rio Olympiad. 

In both experiences, the credential confirmation arrived at the last minute, though in 2018 I was told the week's prior diplomatic visit by the French president and first lady factored for the late-arriving green light for all media (the credential approval came in at about 8 p.m. the night before, which made for a very close booking). 

Both times included press check-in at the same gate where the accountant best friend in "Dave" drove in to aid the film's impostor-in-chief. 

This year's visit provided a repeat selfie photo opp near the lawn north of the West Wing, which this time included a motorcade arrival for German Chancellor Angela Merkel as I was leaving the property.

I also savored the experience again sitting for a few moments in the Jim Brady Press Briefing Room. 

And as in 2016, the fun of it all was centered around the athletes who competed at the current year's Olympiad, and I thoroughly enjoyed spotting many of Team USA's stars of PyeongChang for the first time in the two months since South Korea closed its outstanding Winter Games.

The biggest difference this time, of course, was the Commander-in-Chief, and longtime readers of this blog and my other social media posts know this writer is no fan of our current president nor his administration. 

But I admit that seeing Donald Trump in person -- after many youthful days and nights (early 1990s) of playing the tycoon board game that bears his name, and after all those weeks watching "The Apprentice" years later -- was interesting and memorable.

And to his credit, Mr. Trump treated his guests -- several dozen of Team USA's Winter Olympic and Paralympic delegation -- with great respect, often inviting star athletes to the mic for some impromptu remarks.

Trump also stayed on script, mostly. There were a couple of cringe worthy, albeit expected, off-the-cuff remarks (i.e. mentioning the Paralympics was "difficult to watch"). But overall he was jovial and seemed genuinely in awe of the Olympians who attended. 

Sadly in the weeks and months since the Presidential event, any "good vibes" from the experience vanished with No. 45's daily absurdities. Olympic-inspired talks between South Korea and North Korea did pique my interest amid a summer of many personally fun travel adventures. Anything that can keep my mind off of D.C. politics is a welcome relief. 

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