Should Women’s Hockey Be An Olympic Sport?

We need more of this. (pennstatenews via flickr)
We need more of this. (pennstatenews via flickr)

Today an interesting article was posted in The Score about how women’s hockey isn’t competitive until the gold medal game and, if it shouldn’t be eliminated, then at least there are very good arguments for its elimination that might result in it no longer being an Olympic event. Shockingly, the writers of this blog disagree.

Let’s get one thing out of the way early: there is not parity in women’s hockey. In the 2010 Olympics, USA and Canadian women were dominant statistically (though there were a few players of other nationalities mixed in), and they’re likely to be dominant this year, too. Will they be as dominant? That remains to be seen. I’d like to say the gap is slowly closing; Canada-Finland was a tense game largely because Finland hung in it until late in the third period. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the closing of the gap has been so infinitesimal as to be nonexistent.

The women’s game in its modern form has been around for maybe twenty-thirty years, if you’re being really generous. Women’s hockey has been in the Olympics since 1998, in Nagano – incidentally, the only time a team not Canada won the gold for that event. Since then, it’s pretty much been America and Canada duking it out for gold (except in 2006, when Sweden won silver), while pummeling other countries in the round robin. Much has been made of the change in tournament format this year, which is meant to make the better countries beat up on each other more in the round robin, and give worse countries a better shot at a medal in the elimination rounds.

So, no, there’s not really parity. I’m not going to argue that. What I would argue is that “parity” in this sense is a bit of a smokescreen, and not at all a good argument for eliminating women’s hockey from the Olympics.

Let’s take a look at men’s hockey, the most obvious comparison. Men’s hockey was first in the Winter Olympics in 1920. In the first seven appearances, Canadians won six gold medals. That’s domination, with the exception of a single Olympics, from 1920 to 1952. Should hockey have been eliminated? As a game, it was in its infancy. But even as the game developed more, “parity” was still kind of a joke. From 1956 to 1988, the Soviet Union won 7 of 9 gold medals in men’s hockey (and the NHL wasn’t sending players; how many Canadian greats would it have taken to snap that streak? Not many, probably). Things have evened out a bit since then, but even then, in the last four Olympics, Canada’s won gold twice. (It’s also worth noting that the US men have yet to win a gold medal since 1980. Defund the men’s program?) (That is a joke.)

Hockey is something of an extreme example, of course. As hockey fans are keen to point out when hockey’s fourth-place role in the pantheon of North American sports is highlighted, hockey doesn’t have the audience other major sports do. It’s still largely a game of just a few nations, Canada chief among them. Canadians even take pride in this. But you could argue that it doesn’t make for very interesting Olympic games (or World Juniors games).

The linked article brings up basketball, so let’s talk about that. Men’s basketball first appeared in the Summer Olympics in 1936. Its first four appearances were 1936, 1948, 1952, and 1956. America won gold in all of those appearances. In fact, America won gold until 1972, when the Soviet Union got it. In fact, of 18 available gold medals, the US has 14, including 5 of the last 6.

Even some more esoteric events, which don’t have major North American leagues, lack parity. In swimming, America has dominated in the men’s 100 meter backstroke for the last 5 Olympics, getting gold each year, and has also won gold for the men’s 200 meter backstroke for the last 5 Olympics. America in general is really good at swimming.

Have conversations about removing these events happened? Well, maybe not with swimming, but I know conversations about removing basketball and hockey have happened. But they’ve been around for over 70 years, and will probably continue to be around. Certainly, people now don’t really acknowledge the total lack ofhockey’s historical competitiveness at an Olympic level. But when it comes to the women’s game, people are eager to pull the plug after 5 Olympics.

Personally, I find women’s hockey fun to watch. I like it at the collegiate level, at the Olympic level, and even at the CWHL level. I think there’s a definite market for it, and I think that from a pure player skill standpoint, it has developed quite a bit in the 20 or so years it’s been around (for certain values of ‘around’ that mostly mean ‘comparatively well funded and having international competitions’). Now, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have room for improvement. Obviously it does. But there is simply no historic context in the argument that after 16 years, it’s time to pull the plug because a mere 2 – maybe 3 – countries are reasonably competitive. That’s the case with many sports. To widen the lens a little, leagues being started and folding, people playing while also holding down jobs and thus not being hyper-skilled, money problems, visibility problems, and lopsided competition have been an issue in pretty much every major sport ever – but for major North American men’s sports, that was long enough ago that people tend to forget when criticizing the women’s game.

It’s also worth noting that this gap doesn’t only exist in women’s hockey. Women’s basketball has a league with fairly high visibility (the WNBA!) but nearly all its players are American, and college basketball on the women’s side is still pretty lopsided. Women’s soccer is usually a competition of just a few countries, though that gap is closing, after having considerably more time and visibility to do so. But still: the gap exists, and will continue to exist. Because the sport is in its infancy.

So how do you address the gap? Not by pulling the plug on the biggest competition in the sport, and the competition that gets the sport the vast majority of its publicity. There are a lot of ways to improve women’s hockey. The CWHL is planning on paying its players in the next 5 years (or at least, hopes to), and is working on European player recruitment. Florence Schelling, for example, an outstanding Swiss goaltender who’s posted amazing performances in this Olympics, has been drafted by the CWHL. (The NWSL, National Women’s Soccer League, is doing something similar – essentially training Canadian, American, and Mexican national players by putting them in a year-round league). Countries not Canada and the US need to be encouraged to actually invest in their women’s hockey teams, not just give them a pittance and call it a day. The US and Canadian teams get a full year prior to the Olympics to prepare and play together. Other teams need to play together more and have better youth development.

I mentioned before there is a market for women’s hockey. If you go to a women’s sporting event, the crowd is often heavily women and girls. If little girls had no buying power, toy companies would be in trouble. On top of that, there’s no reason the game can’t appeal to men as well – but finding a niche with girls and women who like to see people like them competing is a good start. If this market is leveraged and encouraged, it will lead to hockey’s popularity spreading in other places.

And, finally, there’s the elephant in the room to address. Some people just don’t think women should play sports, or that women’s sports should be funded like men’s sports are. Is everyone who’s opposed to women’s hockey in the Olympics, or who’s been talking about how they can’t wait for hockey to start, like this? No, of course not. Similarly, not everyone who advocates for women’s hockey is some kind of feminist icon. But there is a double standard, and that double standard affects how countries fund and develop female athletes. It also affects how people view women’s sports, and how critical they are of their development. And it sucks. But, again, the only thing to do is support women’s sports. And to me, that doesn’t mean buying into a double standard of competitiveness and pulling the plug on women’s Olympic hockey.