With rugby union rejoining the Olympics in 2016 the games, winter and summer, now have nine team sports. On top of rugby, the Summer Olympics have field hockey, soccer, basketball, volleyball, handball, water polo while the Winter Games display hockey and curling. What sports are considered to be team events? Those which cannot be carried out by an individual. This is to avoid discrepancy between team relays in swimming or track and field. Both running and swimming are sports that can be competed in individually. Basketball, on the other hand, requires at very least four teammates for competition.
With the Olympics largely being a testament to individual athletic performance, team sports provide a refreshing exhibit of unity and teamwork. Meanwhile, because team sports are comprehensive and are not technically decided by judicators, they represent some of the most exciting action that the games have to offer.
There is one team sport, however, that in the modern age has risen above the others in terms of status and excitement, proving an exemplar for the long-term of the Olympic inclusion of team sports. That sport is men’s ice hockey, even with the inclusion of soccer and field hockey. Field hockey has significantly more global exposure and history. Soccer is unquestionably the most popular sport globally, but FIFA does not take the Olympics very seriously. In fact, it is the women’s tournament that makes a far better case.
What both of these sports lack, however, is being the defining sport of a particular Olympic games. Hockey was unquestionably the defining sport of the Vancouver 2010 games, and is debatably so once again in Sochi. If the host country is able to win their first hockey Gold Medal since the Unified Team in 1992 (shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union) than there is no question. Ice Hockey certainly benefits from being a winter games inclusion in this regard. But that advantage is not enough to negate its central Winter Olympic status.
Depth of field is also an important factor to the success of any sport, especially in a team sport. While this does not give ice hockey an advantage over all sports it certainly does in some cases. It is also the reason why the argument for hockey being the best Olympic team sport can only be made of the male edition: Canada and the US are the only real contenders in the women’s game. Nevertheless, curling, volleyball, handball and certainly basketball (where the United States has won 14 out of 18 Men’s Olympic Gold Medals and 7 out of 10 Women’s golds) all have weaker fields than ice hockey. Canada, Russia, Sweden, US, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and possibly even Switzerland all have medal shots in Sochi.
The Olympics also have a significance to international hockey that is not directly matched by other sports. It is the pinnacle of international competition in the sport and there is really no close second so long as the World Cup of Hockey remains a tournament of the past. While the Olympics certainly are the pinnacle of international curling there are several other events that showcase the planet’s best. Volleyball and handball have World Championships, field hockey, basketball, water polo and soccer have World Cups. The winter Olympic Games is the only showcase of hockey’s finest talent in a best on best international competition and is therefore incredibly significant.
This rarity and circumstance creates an atmosphere around Olympic ice hockey that cannot be matched by other team sports. The excitement of only truly being able to see the planet’s best compete against one another every four years raises these stakes. It makes every game a ruler against which hockey supremacy is measured. For many countries, they become the make or break event of the games. If Canada had not won gold in 2010 the Vancouver Olympics would have had a dark cloud over them, the same can be said for the host nation in Sochi. The United States would have felt a lot better about their results in 2002 had Joe Sakic not broken their hearts. Despite the hype a certain individual may retain it is incredibly rare that the perceived success of a country’s performance, especially a host, is based on a single event.
However, ice hockey and the Olympic Games may not be in each other’s future. There has been much debate about whether the National Hockey League will agree to send players to the next installment. The feeling is that the league would prefer to not interrupt its season, and instead make a resurrected World Cup of Hockey the pinnacle of the game at the international level. Even for these upcoming Olympics, negotiations between the IIHF, IOC and NHL were contentious. But it could be considered another feather in ice hockey’s cap that the Olympic Committee were so insistent on a deal being made.
Whether or not the best ice hockey players are allowed to attend the 2018 Olympics is a huge question for the Winter Games. If their fears are realised the IOC will lose the intrigue behind one of its iconic winter sports. The undoubtable affect on the alteration of hockey’s talent pool would be immense, something that can’t be said for any other team Olympic sport. It is in this that ice hockey finds its strongest argument.
It may not be even close to the most popular global team sport at the Olympic Games, but ice hockey is almost certainly the best they have to offer. Losing its fast-paced action would be a significant blow for the Winter Olympics.
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