With the women’s gold medal decided, and the Canadians celebrating a little too vigorously, talk is moving toward the validity of the sport itself. Many are calling for the elimination of women’s ice hockey from the Winter Olympics, citing a ‘lack of competition.”
To an extent, I would agree. This year’s women’s ice hockey tournament was absolutely dominated by the US and Canada. Before reaching the gold medal game, the two teams combined for an aggregate score of 86-4. However, to go to the extent of canceling the tournament because of two teams’ excellence is putting the cart before the horse.
Women’s ice hockey has only been an Olympic sport for 12 years. It’s to be expected that, when sports are first introduced, some countries will pick up on them more quickly than others and dominate for a time. That’s no reason to call it a failed experiment and cancel the competition altogether.
For the most recent example of one nation’s absolute dominance in an Olympic sport and how it worked out, you only need to look at US basketball.
Basketball was first made an Olympic sport in 1936. The US sent college players to every Olympiad, and came home with gold every year. It didn’t lose a game until the 1972 gold medal game against the Soviet Union, a game whose conclusion was marred in controversy.
With the Dream Team’s inception at the 1992 Summer Olympics, US basketball was international basketball’s version of the Globetrotters. The US scored at least 100 points in every game, and beat their opponent by an average of 43 points. The games were so ridiculous, that before the teams stepped on the court, the opposition wanted to get autographs and photos taken with Dream Team members.
Subsequent Olympics and international tournaments went the same way: US dominating the field, and the other nations simply scrambling for second place. At no point, however, did anyone suggest that the sport be taken out of Olympic competition. The other nations were more than willing to step up their level of competition in hopes of someday beating the red, white and blue machine. As it turns out, they had the right idea.
A mere 10 years later, nations like Serbia, Spain and Argentina managed to topple the mighty US at their own game in the World Championships. At the 2004 Olympics, the US men were again shocked by Greece, Lithuania and Argentina and finished with only bronze.
No one expected the rest of the world to catch up with the US, let alone so quickly. This only illustrates that with enough time and resources, nations can grow and compete with elite squads.
With the exception of the 1980 Games that were boycotted by the US, USA basketball has failed to earn gold in basketball only three times since the sport’s introduction back in 1936. In that span, the US has won 13 gold medals: 13! Suddenly, for two teams to combine to win every gold medal since 1998 doesn’t look so dominant.
Eliminating women’s ice hockey from Olympic competition because of two teams’ dominance is quitting on behalf of every other nation before you even bothered to ask them if they wanted another shot.
Talk of elimination stings a little more, considering there is no women’s professional league. This tournament is their NHL and Stanley Cup playoffs all rolled into one. If they don’t keep this stage to showcase their abilities, it severely diminishes the opportunity to grow the sport.
Most of the nations that participated this year (Sweden, Slovakia, Switzerland, Finland, Russia) have well established men’s programs. It’s not as if the sport itself is completely foreign to them. Sweden and Finland have even medaled in past Games. With the right amount of coaching and experience, these teams can grow, develop and eventually challenge the US and Canada.
As evidenced in the Olympic basketball tournament, given enough time, other nations will turn their program around and become talented enough to challenge the US and Canada.
Women’s hockey is being played in as many as 34 countries. To many of those, it’s a completely new sport that’s being learned with enthusiasm and played with passion. Taking the prospect of an Olympic team away before they even have a chance to learn the game itself would be heartbreaking.
So, to the IOC: give women’s hockey some time. If the Summer Games can withstand 64 years of one team absolutely dominating a sport, I think the Winter Games can handle a two team battle a little longer, while the rest of the world learns the game and improves themselves.