February 15, 2006

Why Women's Hockey Should Stay

I have a high opinion of SI's Michael Farber, so I took note when I read this story asking:

If the IOC can boot women's softball from the Games after 2008, a sport in which four countries -- the U.S., Australia, China and Japan -- play at a high level, why does it tolerate a sport that is truly mastered by only two?

The next day, Damien Cox of the Toronto Star joined in. Cox has two daughters in minor hockey, and claims that he doesn't want to see women's hockey go, but but his editorial was framed with words of surrender:

Before, the absence of any depth in the women's hockey field appeared to be a temporary problem that would be fixed over time as countries new to the game got their programs fired up. Now, it appears permanent, and at a time when the IOC is eliminating viable sports that are more competitive than women's hockey.

And this morning Chris Cochrane's column, the best feature of my morning paper, threw another log on the fire:

Why is women's hockey included in the Winter Olympics? Sure, there are always debates over what sports should and shouldn’t be part of the Olympic offering. Regional biases and politics, under the Olympic umbrella, make for questionable entries and fuel such debates. Yet there shouldn’t be any debate about the inability of women’s hockey to field a slate of competitive teams.

Is there a theme developing here?

I have to admit something. If women's hockey was a sport seeking admission to the summer Olympics, I would be opposed. All three columns make the point that Canada and the USA have dominated the sport's history; I would go even further than that and point out that a single country has won eight of nine world championships, plus one of two Olympic gold medals. The writers are obviously correct to say that this is not an acceptable level of competitive balance.

But women's hockey is not seeking admission to the games — they're already in. And there is little, if any, pressure to "contract" the winter Olympics. The columnists raising this question seem to be making some kind of ethical argument — that it's not fair to have women's hockey in the Olympics, when a more deserving sport like softball is on the outside looking in. It's all so very Canadian. It's almost as if we can't stand the thought that there's an Olympic sport where Canada can be dominant. Everybody's looking around sheepishly saying, "Oh, gosh, sorry about that! We thought everybody would be better by now! We'll just pack up and go home, then, if we're bothering you."

Canada, get over it. You don't hear the Germans proposing to drop luge from the program, even though they've won 65 of 108 Olympic medals since 1964 — and been even more dominant than that in the women's discipline. Yes, I know that women's hockey, so far, is an extreme case; let's admit that they probably got into the Olympics before they were really ready. But things will not always be like this.

First of all, let's not forget that Canadian hockey has gone through an astounding rebirth in the past decade — and I'm talking about men's hockey. The inferiority complex of the 70's and 80's seems like a distant memory, and Canada enters most international tournaments as the favourite. No, it isn't like the old days (and thank god for that) but Canada's hockey program, top to bottom, has never been in better shape. Against that background, is it surprising that our women's hockey team has also pulled away from the field?

And then, there's been the rivalry with the United States. Without each other, either country might have become complacent, allowing the world to catch up to them. But this rivalry won't let that happen. In fact, it seems clear to me (and I am not the only one) that the Canadian and US women's teams have improved markedly since 1998. The competitive balance hasn't improved, but that's not because the world is getting worse.

I think, though, that the women are almost as good as they are going to get, on an absolute scale. Right now, the US women's team plays competitively against top-level high school boys teams, and the Canadian women's team plays at about .500 against AAA-Midget teams in Alberta. This is pretty comparable to the men-women matchup in other, more established sports like basketball or soccer. I don't think that there is another big jump that the Canadian and American teams can make; they're never going to be playing at the major junior or NCAA Div I level. I think that their improvement is bound to slow to a crawl.

Again, let's just admit that women's hockey was rushed into the winter Olympics. But as part of that discussion, we have to admit that we're talking about a very young sport. Eight years ago, there were eight teams in the World Championships, and there was a six-team Olympic tournament. Today, the world championships have a three-tiered qualifying system, going down to such traditional strongholds as Australia, South Africa, and Hungary. That sounds like growth and development. So who decided that eight years (sixteen since the first World Championships) is the maximum allowable incubation time? Does Michael Farber think it's that easy to develop a brand new national sport? Has Canada "truly mastered" soccer yet? I think we may need a few more decades.

So let's give the world a chance, too. The gold medal game in women's hockey already has a memorable history, and has become one of the highlights of the Olympic games. If we're patient, we can have a whole tournament like that.

No comments: