Olympic OK crucial for growth

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty Images

This week, the IOC said Olympics organizers were pleased with the quality of play in the women's ice hockey tournament.

When I wanted to switch from figure skating to ice hockey at age 11, I couldn’t. Girls were not welcome, even though my mom made a plea to the boys’ team coaches. This was in 1968; four years before the passage of Title IX, the law that opened up new opportunities for girls to play sports. So instead of playing hockey, I continued figure skating, then took up luge, which was recruiting women and girls. In 1976, I made the U.S. Olympic team in the luge and competed in Innsbruck, Austria.

I finally had the chance to play ice hockey in 1978 when Yale University, where I was a student, created a varsity women’s ice hockey team. I loved the sport. In 1990 I took to the ice again when I was one of the only women in an adult league. By the time I hung up my skates in 2003, there were all-women tournaments across the country and today, 85 colleges have NCAA women’s ice hockey teams.

The growth in women’s participation that I saw firsthand is a direct result of women’s ice hockey becoming an Olympic sport in 1998, part of the International Olympic Committee’s efforts to promote women’s participation in the Olympics. As the U.S. hockey team competes in Sochi for the Winter Games, it represents the elite of a sport that continues to grow in this country. In 1990, the year of the first International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championships, there were 6,336 registered female ice hockey players in the U.S. Today, the IIHF says 65,700 participate in the U.S. and another 87,230 in Canada.

To date, either the U.S. or Canada has won every gold or silver medal awarded in women’s ice hockey except one, and Finland and Sweden provide the only real competition. The U.S. and Canada have far outscored their competitors, and to fix that, the sport has restructured groupings so that weaker teams play each other until the semi-finals.

Former IOC President Jacques Rogge noted the talent imbalance in a press conference at the Vancouver Games in 2010 and gave women’s ice hockey eight years to fix it. He acknowledged that the sport needed time to grow so that more countries could be competitive, but said that “we cannot continue without improvement” from countries outside the U.S. and Canada. Given that softball was dropped from the Summer Olympics after the 2008 Games after a reign of U.S. and Australian dominance, this seemed a realistic threat.

So I am relieved that earlier this week, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Olympics organizers are “very pleased” with the quality of play in the women's hockey tournament so far in Sochi.

I hope this means women's ice hockey will be an Olympic sport for years to come. The Olympic status and the national funding and attention that comes with it are critical. Fortunately, IIHF initiatives to promote girls’ and women’s hockey internationally have contributed to a growth of 16.5 percent in women’s hockey in just five years, according to its own report, with some of the biggest gains coming from countries such as Korea, Slovakia, Great Britain and Mexico, but four more years likely wouldn’t be enough to see them come close to American and Canadian participation.

Looking back, men’s ice hockey had a similar uneven history. Canada won the first four contests, often outscoring their opponents by more than 20 goals. Canada, the U.S., and the Soviet Union or Russia have dominated the event since the first Winter Games in 1924, winning more than half of all men’s ice hockey Olympic medals. Despite this, men’s hockey was not threatened with elimination; rather the countries’ sports federations and the IOC have invested in the sport. Women’s ice hockey, which was added to the Games seven decades after men’s ice hockey, deserves the same treatment, and I hope Adams’ comment means they will receive it.

I’ve had more fun playing ice hockey than any sport, and I regret all of the years I could have been shooting a puck rather than practicing double axles. I’m glad, however, for progress. I also am glad that the IOC seems willing to give women's hockey more time to increase its number of participants. While I’ll always root for Team USA, I hope that before too long, the sport will have grown enough that a team from Great Britain or Kazakhstan can vie for a women’s ice hockey gold medal.

Maura Grogan is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.