Hockey’s Near Death Experience

Published in the April 2013 issue of PUSH (the only independent print hockey magazine in the UK)

In early 2000s, the IOC decided to cap the number of sports in the Summer Olympics at 28.  At the same time, many sports aspire to join the Olympic family. After every Olympics, the OIC considers the relative merits of the contenders and the disciplines which are part of the Olympics at that moment of the time- who to include and who to drop. This scenario means Olympic sports disciplines would live with a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

It was shocking to know that our game came the closest possible to be eliminated from the Olympics. Hockey was one of five sports under threat at the meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, and was still involved after canoeing and taekwondo survived the early rounds of voting. It was the 15 member executive committee of the IOC who voted. In the penultimate round of three sports, hockey, wrestling and modern pentathlon, remained. Luckily for hockey, the axe fell on wrestling.

All this should serve as a wakeup call. Wake-up call for whom? For everyone who is related to the game and who really loves the game. Dropping from the Olympics would have been a disaster for hockey no less in proportion than the catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unlike some other team sports such as soccer, basketball, etc. Olympics are the most important event for hockey. The World Cup is a distant second. Even in some of the most successful hockey nations such as Australia and Germany, the interest of general public and particularly of the national media in hockey is only ignited when the national team is seen at the quadrennial multi-sport stage.

It is not much different in the Great Britain. When the team GB picked the bronze at the 1984 Olympics, they won the national team award of the year. The sport received unprecedented attention when the side returned with the gold from the Seoul 1988. Sean Kerly, the most celebrated hero of that campaign tells, “As soon as we landed at Heathrow, we were taken into a small room for an interview for breakfast television. That was just the beginning. We went to Buckingham Palace as well as 10 Downing Street to see the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. At the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Show in 1988, the hockey team won the team award for the second time, having won it in 1984. Moreover, I was nominated for the individual award. I made other TV appearances and The Sun even ran a story on “20 things you never knew about the Olympic hero Sean Kerly”.  Neither the game of hockey nor its executioner in the UK has received such recognition before and since, and it was solely due to the Gold at the Olympics.
Government funding to hockey in many countries is centred on the Olympics; directly proportional to the showing at the Olympics. In this sport, still by and large an amateur discipline, perhaps the most coveted title, the stick wielders dream of is ‘Olympian.’ It would not be wrong to term Olympics as the Oxygen to our sport.

The selection of the sport to be dropped was in the hands of the 15 member executive committee of the IOC which didn’t include the president.  One wonders why hockey came so close to the exit door. Just a few months back, hockey was only the third biggest sport at the Olympics in terms of ticket numbers. Over 630,000 tickets were sold for the Games. Yet, in no time, the sport came closest possible to be shown the door.

Leandor Negre, the FIH president, was also flabbergasted at the news, “I’m shocked that it came down to that. In fact, many officials from the IOC too were surprised. Hockey is an Olympic sport in the true sense. The attendances at London were excellent, the TV coverage was better than many other sports.”

Hockey has come under the IOC scrutiny before, when concerns were raised over its popularity in comparison with other disciplines. The IOC had highlighted three key areas — spectator interest, broadcast quality and viewership, and the number of countries affiliated to the FIH. Negre said the sport has made progress in dealing with these issues. “These were the concerns addressed by the IOC around six years ago. Back then, we had less than 100 affiliated countries but now the number has increased to almost 130. Television coverage has improved tremendously too. We don’t know where we are lacking this time,” said Negre.

All this suggests there is more to it than that.  Modern Pentathlon, along with hockey and wrestling, came to the penultimate round of the elimination. It comprises five events: pistol shooting, fencing, 200 m freestyle swimming, show jumping, and a 3 km cross country run. Its lack of popularity outside Eastern Europe had led to frequent calls for its exclusion from the Olympics programme for a long time. Yet, the discipline has survived.

Before making its decision, the IOC’s programme commission reportedly assessed each sport by looking at such factors as TV ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping and global popularity. Where does modern pentathlon stand in comparison with hockey in any of the above aspects?   Nowhere.

Klaus Schorman, the president of modern pentathlon’s governing body himself stated, he had ‘lobbied’ hard to protect his sport’s Olympic status. So Lobbying is a definite factor.
South Korea, the new economic giant, at that particular time, staged the 1988 Olympics at Seoul. Taekwondo, the Korean martial art made its Olympic debut though only as a demonstration sport. The success of the Olympics plus the continuous and effective lobbying by Korea was a major factor in Taekwondo becoming a medal sport in the 2000 Olympics. This was despite the fact that Judo, another form of the martial arts, which is not much different from a spectator’s point of view from Taekwondo, was already a part of the Olympics and remains so.

Hockey is definitely doing well on all the fronts. The recent initiatives of the FIH like the World Hockey League and the proposed World Club Championships are steps in a right direction but this scare definitely means far more needs to be done:  Hockey should not even come into mention whenever there is some discussion about the sports to be eliminated from the Olympics.

The areas needing to be worked at: Glamour, Professionalism & Money, Horizontal & Vertical spread.   All these are distinct spheres but at the same time very much interlinked.

Quite a few domestic hockey leagues in different parts of the world are now professional or semi-professional as players get paid. The Dutch league is definitely the best competitively as well as vis-à-vis the quality of players and the duration. However, India’s HIL (Hockey India League), launched this year, promises to take hockey to a new level. Top international stars like Tuen de Nooijer and Moritz Fuerste earned more than $ 80,000 for playing in the league which ran for about four weeks. The television presentation was excellent with large viewership all over the world. This should only be a beginning. In cricket too, it was the Indian IPL that set the ball rolling. Now there are lucrative Twenty20 leagues in Australia, Bangladesh and South Africa with one coming up in the Caribbean. It is hoped the HIL would also have a comparable knock on effect on other countries.

China, the other huge Asian economic giant of today could be one such nation. No doubt, hockey is a low profile sport there as compared to India. But in recent years China, especially their women national team (silver medal at the 2008 Olympics), have been doing quite well at the international stage. Then in certain areas of world’s biggest nation housing 1/5th of humanity, hockey is strongly embedded in the culture. In inner Mangolia, people are playing a sport similar to hockey for more than 1,000 years.

In the USA, hockey is one of the biggest participatory sports among the women. With some astute planning, a professional/semi-professional women field hockey league could be worked out in the sole super power of the day. If successful, players from other nations of the American continent could also be figuring in such a league leading to its following in their respective countries as well.

The FIH and the continental governing bodies also need to work on the untapped hockey markets.  One which readily comes into mind is the Gulf. With large expat communities from the Indo/Pak sub-continent, the area has all the ingredients to be a big hockey centre. It might surprise some but it was in gulf where prize money in the international hockey was introduced for the first time.

It was Brig M.H.Atif, the former vice president of the FIH, the man with a great foresight, who realised very early that the Middle East would soon be a major sports centre. The Pakistan/India hockey series organised by the great visionary in Kuwait and Dubai in mid 80s were the first real international hockey activity in that part of the world. Then he went a step further. The two 4-Nation tournaments in Dubai & Kuwait in January 1986 were the first international hockey events to officially offer prize money anywhere in the world. And it was before Abdul Rahman Bukhatir’s CBFS (Cricketers Benefit Fund Series) took off in the UAE.

Qatar, with world’s fastest economy growth rate at 19%, is a potential gold mine for hockey. The sport made remarkable progress in the sheikdom during last year- staged the first round of the World Hockey League and, in December, hosted the very high profile Asian Champions Trophy. For the final between Pakistan and India, more than 7,000 fans turned up and reportedly some paid 500 riyals to buy tickets with face value of only 10.

The highly ambitious Qatar Hockey Federation has loftier goals, and desires to do something revolutionary –  which could stun the world of hockey. Spadework is on for an Arab Hockey League on the pattern somewhat similar to cricket’s IPL (Indian Premier League).  The proposed six team tournament won’t be confined to Qatar only as it envisages two sides each in Qatar, UAE and Oman. The team composition is what that would make the league really special. The local talent would form only one third of the squad with the remaining two thirds composed of international stars.

One way to benefit from this encouraging Gulf scenario could be to stage a Champions Trophy edition in the gulf with matches distributed between Qatar, UAE and Oman. That would make the region an international hockey centre.  The rich sheikhs are already investing a lot into the major soccer clubs of the top European leagues. The successful holding of a major hockey tournament in the region featuring world’s top international sides would definitely make them ponder about injecting money in the game of hockey which has a lot of similarities with football. The success should result in an almost inevitable spread to the other gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, again all with substantial population from South Asia, and all very resourceful.

At the same time, the FIH should try to introduce prize money at its own tournaments such as the Champions Trophy. Same goes for the invitational tournaments like the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, four/three nations, etc. The element of the prize money would not only bolster the competitive streak among the teams but also the interest of the followers of the game.  Presently, the interest is somewhat diluted as many see such tourneys mainly a preparatory ground for the title tournaments.  No one on the earth dislikes money. The financial incentives would attract more and more youngsters to the sport of hockey. The family influence, especially in the Eastern cultures, still plays an important part in the choice of the career. If hockey offers good career prospects, the parents won’t stop their wards from taking up the sport.

In those parts of the world, where hockey is virtually non- existing or not played much, interest in the sport could be developed through mini hockey: 7 a side or 5 a side hockey played across smaller pitches. There is also the matter of taking hockey to hitherto unknown   territories. Negre has already mentioned about getting hockey into the Paralympics.

No need telling the role of media in popularising a sport. The coverage goes beyond international tournaments and domestic leagues. Every sport needs stars and role models. Our sport also dishes out the player of tournament at most of the events.

Every year, the FIH announces its own All-Star team, Men and Women players of the year plus the Young players of both the gender.  Some other categories such as the umpire of the year, the most improved nation, the best domestic league, etc. should also be added.  To make it really colourful, the  gala award ceremony to be held  with pomp and fanfare as done in other sports like soccer and cricket.  It won’t be a bad idea if the media departments of the FIH as well as the leading hockey nations make efforts to produce really interesting hockey documentaries about greats of the game, memorable matches, unforgettable moments of hockey, etc.

A vicious circle: spread in every direction, more money & sponsorship, more & better media coverage, more playing countries, more glamour, more talk about the game; more talk about the game’s stars; there is no end.

All this would contribute towards the final goal: Hockey should not even come into mention whenever there is some discussion about the sports to be eliminated from the Olympics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s