New Delhi: Hockey just about managing to escape the 2020 Olympics exit has set off the SOS alarm in the International Hockey Federation (FIH) corridors. Until Tuesday, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave hockey a lifeline while putting 8 other sports on the ventilator, the apex body felt it was doing all it could in terms of globalising the sport and provide a level playing field.
Hockey India League (HIL) has enjoyed its share of success, a fair bit of it. Nations like Fiji (ranked 70th) are rejoicing at being part of the Hockey World League. Juniors have geared up for the World Cup later this year after sharing ground with the world's best in the HIL. Once a hockey powerhouse, India are chalking out plans to make their way up. Appointment of Roelant Oltmans as their High Performance Manager is a welcome move. So things were looking up, until Tuesday arrived. And now hockey needs to ponder ways to avoid the IOC hangmen in future.
According to BBC, hockey was one of the five sports facing the heat at the meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Tuesday, and was still under threat after early round of voting in which canoeing and taekwondo survived. Hockey was thrown a rope in the penultimate round in which three sports - hockey, wrestling and modern pentathlon - were voted for and against.
Challenges that lie ahead
The 2016 Rio Olympics come as a big challenge for hockey. The Brazilian men's and women's teams are currently number 33 and 51 respectively in the FIH rankings - with nothing to show for. And with the sport having just an imaginary presence in the football-driven nation, the organisers will be up against it to match the figures hockey touched in London, where over 630,000 tickets were sold.
Spectator interest and viewership are the aspects the IOC Games' review programme keenly looks at after every edition, and if hockey lags on that front, which is more than a possibility in Rio, then even a sharper axe will hang on its head.
The nations affiliated to the FIH have grown from 71 in 1974 to 127 today. So in the last 38 years, 56 more countries have become part of FIH - which is less than two per year. That reflects hockey has spread at a very negligible pace in the last almost four decades - when those numbers should have been achieved much, much earlier.
But the FIH is doing its bit with tournaments like the World League and providing domestic events such as the HIL, which make players financially stable, a separate window in its calendar. Initiatives like the World League also bring every member nation on a level playing field, giving them an opportunity to qualify for the marquee hockey tournaments like the World Cup. But it's still work in progress and a lot more needs to be done.
Hitler offered Major Dhyan Chand to play for Germany - not that he wanted to turn the hockey wizard into a German but to throw India from its Olympic perch. Such has been the domination of Indian hockey at the Olympics - not to mention the eight gold the country has won. Picture may not be rosy on the playing field since 1980 for India, but of late it has become the world's commercial hub.
Take, for example, the case of HIL. At a time when most member boards are struggling to generate funds, Hockey India rolled out a franchise-based league with players earning as much as $78,000 a year to play just under a month of hockey. The figure may be nothing compared to what cricketers rake in the IPL, but it's a big leap for hockey stars - not just from India but those coming to play the HIL from around the globe.
So if commercialization is the IOC's way forward, then India will be a major cog propelling hockey's wheel at the Olympics. But the challenge for India lies in adding weight to its voice, which is only possible if the financial prospects are backed by performance on the field and peace off it.
Note: Hockey was introduced into the Olympics in 1908 but was dropped from Paris 1924. However, since the Amsterdam Games in 1928, it continues to be part of the Olympics.