Speaking out: The puck stops with IOC President Rogge if women's hockey is to grow
I am an enormous fan of women's sports. And that includes non-Olympic women's sports, such as the Northwestern women's lacrosse team, whose success has turned into my favorite story of the last five years.
I have railed at the International Olympic Committee for not allowing female ski jumpers to compete at the 2010 Olympics, for allowing women's softball to be dumped from the Olympic program, for its staggeringly poor representation of women among its own membership (barely 15%), for having just one woman on its 15-member executive board, for allowing international sports federations to have an even more dismal record on women in leadership positions.
Having established, I hope, my bona fides as a relentless backer of more opportunities for women as athletes and sports leaders, I am going to take what may seem an incongruous position.
I agree with IOC President Jacques Rogge's feeling that unless the level of women's hockey outside Canada and the United States improves, the sport has no future in the Olympics.
Where Rogge and I differ, though, is he would put all the burden for that improvement on individual nations and the International Ice Hockey Federation, while I say the burden is on the IOC. Otherwise, the IOC's professed goal of gender equity in the Olympics will ring hollow.
That IOC posture of fobbing off responsibility led to its shameful failure to prevent the International Luge Federation from issuing a half-baked report blaming Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili's "driver error" for the accident that led to his death.
Shouldn't one person on the IOC commission that oversaw preparations for the Vancouver Games have listened to all the athletes' reactions about the dangerous speeds on the sliding track and noted how many crashes had occurred there in the previous year? Twelve days after the death, Rogge said, "Everyone is responsible,'' presumably meaning the organizers, the international federation, the IOC and, perhaps, the athlete. Sorry, Jacques, these are the IOC's games: In the end, the IOC is wholly responsible.
I hope the newest IOC member from the United States, four-time hockey Olympian Angela Ruggiero, will do everything she can to hold Rogge's feet to the fire on the issue of how the IOC should take its responsibility for her sport's future, even if it is not a life-and-death matter.
A few facts:
When women's hockey debuted on the Olympic program in 1998, the U.S. and Canada won the Games not against each other by an aggregate margin of 50-8.
In the 2010 tournament, the aggregate margin for the two teams against all other opponents was 86-4.
Two of the nations with respectable teams in 1998, Finland and Sweden, clearly have backslid since. Sweden lost here to Canada 13-1 and to the U.S. 9-1; Finland lost to the U.S. 5-0 and to Canada 6-0, scores that would have been much worse but for brilliant efforts by Finnish goalie Noora Raty.
"The sport has to grow,'' Rogge said last Thursday in a breakfast interview I attended with two dozen other international journalists who focus on the Olympics. "The Games themselves will do a lot for the popularity of the sport. I have no doubt that in the future, women's hockey will be a hit.''
In 12 years, there is so sign of growth. So it was natural that one of the journalists asked Rogge how long it would take.
"Not that long,'' he said. "I think if the efforts of the international federation continue and the funding to other countries continues, maybe four to eight years.''
You will notice the "if'' in that sentence.
To make sure there is no doubt, Rogge needs to be all over the international federation (IIHF) to make sure that happens, because one look at the pictures of its 11-member governing council would give anyone serious pause. (The five leading officials all are men).
One thing the hockey federation must not do is take the suggestion of Swedish coach Peter Elander, whose idea to achieve equality would be hockey socialism: insisting all teams have the same budget and spend the same number of pre-Olympic training days together, since Canada and the U.S. have by far the most of both. Such an idea would penalize excellence instead of helping other countries reach that level.
What should Rogge do? The IOC gives each winter federation a revenue share from the Olympics. It should insist much of hockey's share go primarily to women's programs for the foreseeable future.
Proportional division of the revenue based on participation is ridiculous if the IOC wants women's hockey to grow: 2009 figures on the IIHF website show, for instance, that Russia has 84,720 registered players, of whom just 278 are women. (There are 59,506 women among the 465,975 registered players in the United States, and 85,309 women among the 499,695 in Canada.)
The IOC also could kick in some more money from its massive revenues ($5.45 billion from 2005-08) specifically for women's hockey. And it could insist national hockey federations in countries with strong men's programs give more attention and money to women. This is no time for the IOC to hide behind the philosophical wall it builds on the grounds it should not interfere with the sovereignty of international federations and national Olympic committees.
The question, of course, is whether the IOC really wants women's hockey to survive or whether Rogge's words are lip service, as they were on issues like repression in China.
Some feel women's hockey will stay on the program simply because it costs little extra at the Olympics, where it can share rinks with the men. But the sport must do more than survive. To be a respected part of the Olympic program, it needs to thrive.
It is heartening that the Harvard-educated Ruggiero was elected last week by her peers, other Winter Olympic athletes, to an eight-year term as an IOC member. She will have to do a lot of mucking in the corners to persuade Rogge and her other new IOC member peers that the puck stops with them.
-- Philip Hersh in Vancouver
Photos, from top: IOC President Jacques Rogge, left, poses with the two newest IOC members, hockey player Angela Ruggiero of the United States and skeleton racer Adam Pengilly of Great Britain. Credit: IOC. Finnish players celebrate their 3-2 victory over Sweden in the bronze-medal game. Both teams were hopelessly outmatched against the United States and Canada.