Addicted to novelty since 2001

Lopsided Results in Women’s Hockey

As you may have noticed, I haven’t had a lot to say about the Olympics. I went to a few hockey games (including one courtesy of Tourism BC–thanks, guys) and a biathlon event (where James snapped a bunch of photos). I’ve generally enjoyed the Games (though I’ve got enough friends opposed to them to understand their downside), but I’m happy to see them completed.

I’ve watched more hockey than anything else, much of it with friends and family. In doing so, I’ve discussed the same two topics a number of times:

  • Is it appropriate to run up the score, as the Canadian women’s hockey team did in a 18-0 thumping of the Slovakian team in their opener?
  • Given the constant dominance of Canada and the USA, should women’s hockey be in the Olympics?

As it happens, I’ve summarized both arguments in the comments on this post by Rebecca. I thought I’d reproduce them here, with some minor tweaks.

Running Up the Score

This is a common complaint levelled at international tournaments of all sorts–it’s not unique to hockey (I’m reminded of a certain 31-0 victory by Australia over American Samoa in World Cup qualifying). The optics aren’t good.

Here’s why teams do it: the number of goals you score (your ‘goals for’ number) is usually the tie-breaking statistics when you have the same number of points as another team. This is obviously hugely important if that tiebreaker determines, say, who advances to the next round. It may have lesser importance, too. For example, it can determine who gets home field (or ice) advantage.

Also, from a sports psychology perspective, if a team ‘goes easy’ on a lesser team, they risk carrying that behaviour into the subsequent games against tougher opponents. As coaches say, “you have to play your own game, not your opponents'”. As such, ‘taking your foot off the gas’ can be risky.

The Future of Women’s Hockey in the Olympics

Last Friday, IOC President Jack Rogge (who feels a little fascist, doesn’t he?) remarked on the lopsided results in women’s hockey:

Hours before the gold medal final between the United States and Canada, dominant powers in a tournament where they routed outmatched rivals, Rogge said the Olympics can bear the lopsidedness for only so long.

“There is a discrepancy. Everyone agrees with that,” Rogge said. “This may be the investment period for women’s ice hockey. I would personally give them more time to grow but there must be a period of improvement. “We cannot continue without improvement.”

Accusations of sexism were levelled at Rogge, more because of his comments on the Canadian women’s celebration (which almost certainly were sexist) than the sports future in the Olympics. Shelley Fralic’s poorly-argued–she ignores the question of parity altogether–piece is a good example of the response Rogge’s remarks received.

To separate gender politics from sport, imagine the following scenario. Let’s pretend that snowball fights are an Olympic event:

For four Olympic Games in a row, you know with near certainty that the US and Canada Snowball Fighting teams will meet in the final. They’ve met in three of four gold-medal games. They have almost never lost to any other team in the tournament (Canada has once and the USA twice, I think), and they’ve outplayed all other opponents by a considerable margin. The final is exciting, but every snowball fight up to that point is pretty much a foregone conclusion. It’s a sure bet that at the Snowball Fighting finals in 2014, it’ll be USA and Canada again.

The mistake the IOC made was permitting women’s hockey to join when they did. I assume that they expected other nations to catch up to the USA and Canadian women, but that simply hasn’t happened over the last 14 years. It’s not all that surprising, considering that the much more popular men’s game only has, at best, eight or ten competitive teams.

If they decided to remove women’s hockey, the decision wouldn’t be without precedent. Softball was recently removed from the Summer Olympics because of America’s dominance of the sport through four consecutive Games.

The common counter-argument I’ve heard is “what better way to motivate other countries than with the promise of an Olympic medal?” This seems pretty specious, as it could be applied to any sport–no matter how niche or regionally lopsided–as a reason for inclusion in the Olympics.

I’ve always enjoyed watching Canada/USA games. And the increase in talent among those two teams in the past 14 years has been remarkable.

I don’t know what the right decision is for the future of the sport, but if you’re a fan of parity and unpredictability, you’re not a fan of having women’s hockey in the Olympics.

5 Responses to “Lopsided Results in Women’s Hockey”

  1. Chris

    Healthy sport like a healthy economy thrives on competition and any time one side has a monopoly on winning (which will occasionally yet inevitably happen), someone needs to step in and level out the playing field.

    Winning sucks when it means you’ve completely clobbered your opponent. Personally, having that U.S. goal in the last 30 seconds of the men’s game was probably one of the best things that could have happened in that game. The closer the better.

  2. Derek K. Miller

    The softball example is interesting because it was one team winning all the time. At least in women’s hockey the final game is a legitimate contest. And it’s not like men’s softball remains and women’s is gone, right?

    One issue us that team sports are more prone to this problem. A remarkable individual or few individuals can emerge from a previously uncompetitive nation in, say, cross-country skiing or luge or speed skating, especially if they can train against the clock instead of having to find others to play against. Teams are more difficult and expensive to assemble and maintain.

    Curling has succeeded at the Olympics because it has a vital multinational set of championships every year that brings top-flight squads from many countries. (Plus you only need four or five people.)

    However, the IOC has also demanded gender parity for new sports in recent decades, and has introduced women’s events to match old men’s ones (luge, wrestling, etc.) when possible. Removing a women’s sport but not the men’s for the same event counters that principle. Maybe the IOC added women’s hockey too early, but I think it is far too late, politically, to remove it now.

  3. JohnB

    Unbalanced teams? It was the same situation in men’s hockey for many years. Start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_hockey_at_the_1924_Winter_Olympics

    darren Reply:

    I just had a quick look, and in the first five Olympics where ice hockey was played, seven different nations won medals. Canada won four out of five golds, but silver and bronze seemed fairly distributed. The scores in the 1924 Olympics are hilariously lopsided, though.

    Even today, there are only six good men’s hockey nations. I think the Olympics should be re-arranged so that the 7th through 12th ranked teams play each other for two spots along with the top six, and those eight teams have a play down from there.

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