Less than a week after they battled to a thrilling 3-2 finish, the women’s hockey teams from Canada and the United States will meet Thursday morning in the gold medal match at the Sochi Olympics. That the Americans and Canadians are playing for gold is hardly a shock. It’s been that way at four of the past five Olympics, and the only time either played a truly competitive game in Sochi was against each other (the U.S. won non-Canada games 3-1, 9-0, and 6-1; Canada won its non-USA games 5-0, 3-0, and 3-1).
If the gold medal match follows the arc of the preliminary meeting between the two, it promises to be a great game for a sport that needs visibility around the world. But women’s hockey players on both teams won an even bigger award than a gold medal Tuesday morning, when international hockey officials assured the world that the International Olympic Committee would “never” cut the sport from the Olympic lineup.
The IOC had put women’s hockey on notice after the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, telling the sport’s top officials that it needed to improve its international depth to remain an Olympic sport.
“That will never happen,” International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel said of Olympic elimination at a Tuesday press conference in Sochi. “I can guarantee you that.”
The sport, Fasel insisted, has improved its depth since the 2010 Games, even if the United States and Canada remain dominant. Though Fasel’s insistence isn’t a guarantee from the IOC, there are good reasons for maintaining the sport at the Olympic level, where small groups of countries often dominate single sports.
Take three of the Winter Games’ signature events. There have been five unique gold medalists in the last six Olympic men’s hockey tournaments, but before that, only two countries dominated the sport. From 1920 to 1988, Canada (six) and the Soviet Union (seven) combined to win 16 of the sport’s 18 gold medals, with the United States taking the other two. The Soviets never missed a podium between 1956 and 1988, the last Games in which the Soviet Union competed.
Men’s speed skating isn’t much different. The Netherlands has won 98 medals in the sport since 1924, 18 more than Norway and nearly a third more than the United States, the two closest countries. Those three combined have won nearly half of the speed skating medals ever issued at the Olympics (include the Soviet Union’s 24 spots on the podium, and four countries have combined to win nearly 60 percent of all speed skating medals).
In cross country skiing, three active countries — Norway, Sweden, and Finland — have won 55 percent of the medals ever handed out. Add in the Soviets’ 68 cross country medals, and four countries have won 71 percent of the medals in the sport’s Olympic history.
Or look at men’s basketball, which came to the Summer Olympics in 1936. The United States won six straight gold medals from then until 1968; the Americans have won 14 of the sport’s 18 gold medals overall. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were the only non-American teams to even play for gold from 1952 to 1976, and that streak likely would have continued had the U.S. not boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games.
None of these sports have faced calls for elimination. In fact, all four are viewed as integral to the Olympics.
The biggest problem facing women’s hockey is participation. There are 80,000 players in Canada and 60,000 more in the U.S., but European countries average fewer than 5,000 participants. That’s a large gap that isn’t likely to be filled soon, but it doesn’t mean the IOC can’t use the Olympics to grow women’s hockey around the world. The Games were huge for the international growth of both men’s and women’s basketball (in which the U.S. has won seven of the last eight gold medals), where it gave the sports massive marketing platforms that reached a worldwide audience. The U.S. still dominates both sports, but in the men’s game, Spain, Argentina, Lithuania, and Russia have emerged as credible contenders over the last decade. Women’s teams from Australia, Brazil, France, and Russia have all turned in medal-winning performances at Olympics since 2000.
For women’s hockey, the Olympics are even more important to that sort of growth. The NBA, foreign leagues, and WNBA provide basketball players established leagues in which to play even if their sports disappeared from Olympic competition. That isn’t the case in women’s hockey, which has small domestic leagues but relies on the Olympics and other international tournaments to drive the sport. Elimination from the Olympics would likely crush participation rates not just in countries that are trying to grow and compete — like Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland — but in the United States and Canada too, where Olympic glory remains the sport’s most attractive draw to new participants.
Competition is great. But the Olympics also exist to foster inclusion in sports for all types of people, and in a world where men’s sports don’t struggle for notoriety, the Games are one of the few places where women compete on near-equal footing. The IOC has made major strides in increasing equality for women in sports — it lobbied Saudi Arabia and other countries to send female athletes to London in 2012 and added women’s ski jumping to the lineup in Sochi. Eliminating a sport like women’s hockey would have been a step back not just for the sport but for women’s sports and the Olympics as a whole. Thankfully, if Fasel’s confidence is to be believed, that’s a step back the IOC is no longer thinking about taking.