Monday, 17 February 2014

The Sport Will Judge Itself

So we'll have another Canada-USA battle for the gold medal in the Olympic women's ice hockey tournament which was entirely expected. There will be a discussion at some point within the IOC regarding the competitiveness of this tournament since every Olympic Games since 1998 when women's ice hockey was introduced has featured a Canada-USA final. The US hammered Sweden 6-1 today while the Canadians dispatched the Swiss by a 3-1 score. Thursday will see these two old foes once again engage in battle for the gold medal.

Of course, there were whispers amongst the critics about the lack of competitiveness in the women's game, but the public opinion was ramped up again. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News wrote a piece today that literally rips down all the good we saw in women's hockey this year. Instead of extolling the skills shown by players like Finland's Noora Raty, Switzerland's Florence Schelling, and Sweden's Pernilla Winberg, Campbell takes swipes at the women's game once more.

We're talking about removing a sport from the Olympic Games that has seen major steps taken outside North America in the last eight to twelve years, and it appears that most are fine with it being removed. Hardly anyone that is not involved in the sport in some way has come to its defence. And so there was talk about removing it due to the uncompetitive balance between the two North American teams and the rest of the planet.

SERIOUSLY?!? I find it hard to believe that a lot of people making bigger decisions than I with regards to the sport can't see the harm that will be done if women's ice hockey is removed from the Olympic Games. If you want to talk about competitive balance, perhaps we need to look at another winter sport that was on trial today, and probably will be for a long, long time.

The Ice Dancing event happened yesterday and today, and we saw what appeared to be a flawless performance from the Canadians, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, last night in the short program. They were deducted marks, however, for their Finnstep, a move invented by Finnish skater Petri Kokko. Regarding the move and the routines performed by Virtue and Moir in comparison with the leading American team Charlie White and Meryl Davis, Kokko tweeted out,
Ok, so there might be a little confusion in the judging, but I happened to be home today thanks to a provincial holiday, and I was lucky enough to catch what might be the rant of the Olympics by Sportsnet360's Sid Seixeiro. This is epic.
WOW. That was INCREDIBLE! And to be honest, I agree with Mr. Seixeiro that, if the allegations are true, ice dancing as a sport is entirely corrupt and should lose its Olympic status immediately with extreme prejudice.

The L'Équipe article that Mr. Seixeiro refers to is linked here, but the English version of the story, written by Beverly Smith for The National Post and, makes it very clear that there may have been an agreement to keep Tessa and Scott off the gold medal position on the podium between the Russians and Americans.

Conspiracy? Maybe, but perhaps we should look at the history of the sport in general before we go raising theories about collusion between countries. As Christie Blatchford wrote in her article, "... one knowledgeable (anonymous) poster on insider skating sites has noted, 'Ice dance is the Cosa Nostra' of sport. Its history is sufficiently sordid that claims of nobility ring laughably hollow."

At the 1998 Nagano Games, Canadian judge Jean Senft recorded a phone conversation with Ukrainian judge Yuri Balkov. Balkov asked Senft to vote for Ukrainian skaters in exchange for Balkov backing Canada's ice-dance team of Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. Suspicious of the request, Senft recorded the conversations between herself and Balkov, turning the recordings over to the International Skating Union. Balkov was suspended for his actions. For one year. Seems right, doesn't it?

In 2002 at the Salt Lake City Games, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier claimed a disappointing silver behind their Russian rivals. That is, until French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne admitted she had scored the Canadians lower than what they deserved as part of a deal with the Russians so they could win gold thanks to an agreement made by the head of the French federation, Didier Gailhaguet. Her low marks for the Canadians would guarantee that France would received high scores in ice dancing. After breaking down in a tearful admission to the chair of the Technical Committee, Sally Stapleford, Sale and Pelletier would eventually be awarded a second set of gold medals alongside the Russian pair of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze. Both Le Gougne and Gailhaguet were eventually suspended from the sport for three years by the International Skating Union which never made any serious investigation into the events. Seems about right, doesn't it?

In less than twenty years, we've had two confirmed major international scandals involving ice dancing, and another allegation of one happening at these Games. Women's hockey has a few blowouts, admittedly, but there haven't been any double-digit wins in Sochi. There have been some definite one-sided games in the last twenty years of women's hockey, but we've never once seen a team throw a game. And yet people still want to cut women's hockey from the Olympics yet let the ice dancing scandals live on.

I'm not here to take anything away from the athletes who have chosen ice dancing as their discipline. Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir, Charlie White, Meryl Davis, and all the other figure skaters are incredible athletes, and they deserve a sport where they are put on the world's stage for all to appreciate their athleticism and skill. But the crap that goes on within the world of judging the sport tarnishes everything they have done and will do.

"That's sort of out of our control," Tessa Virtue said today after the medal ceremony. "It's part of being in a judged sport. There's not much you can do about that."

And that's why women's hockey should remain as part of the Olympics. It's not a sport that requires outside judgment of any kind. The sport and the athletes will be judged by their finishes and the efforts that put them in those standings. If Team USA beats Team Canada, the score will reflect the effort given on that day. I'm entirely sure neither team is going to throw the game. No team, since the inception of women's hockey at the 1998 Nagano Games, has even thrown a game in any way, shape, or form. There's too much pride on the line to do that, even in the blowout games.

Removing women's hockey from the Olympics removes women's highest honour from the players. The gold medal is women's hockey's Stanley Cup. And like the NHL, there are teams that are perennially in the running for the Stanley Cup. Right now, Team USA and Team Canada are the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadians of the late-1960s and early-1970s. They're dominant, they're always winning, and they beat up on the weaker expansion teams. Occasionally, there's a Philadelphia who comes along and upsets one of these teams, but women's hockey is no different than the Expansion Era of the NHL as it stands. Montreal wins, Boston wins, and everyone else tries to emulate them.

"Of course it can be a problem for the rest of the world that they are so powerful. I think we should try to look up to them and try to improve our game," Swedish assistant coach Leif Boork said after their loss to the Americans today. But if there are no Olympics for anyone to strive for, why would Sweden bother improving? You've taken the biggest prize away from them, so what's in it for them?

Look, I don't know how to fix ice dancing. I'm not versed in the sport enough to even know how to score it better, let alone fix the judging scandals. I do, however, know that it took seven years of hockey before a non-Original Six team won the Stanley Cup after the expansion. We've had five Olympics with women's hockey, and we've seen improvement from all teams not based in North America.

Let's stop with the rhetoric of how uncompetitive the women's game is, and how removing it from the Olympics is a good idea. Removing the women's game from the Olympics kills any progress made, and will set the game back in every country outside North America back to zero. If there is nothing to play for, no one will play.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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