Jacques goes Rogge

Our women’s hockey gold may be the last one for a while.

As Canadians we all selfishly want women’s hockey to remain part of the Winter Olympics, but can we all agree that we’re going to have to come up with arguments for doing so that aren’t crapola? When Jacques Rogge dared to mention yesterday that the tournament had been just a teeny tiny bit lopsided, Monique Lamoureux, a U.S. forward, observed that “If you look back 30 to 40 years ago, Canada and Russia were blowing men’s hockey out of the water, but other countries came around.”

It’s rather bad luck for her that some of us can remember almost 30, nay, 40 years back, isn’t it? Split the difference pretty much down the middle and you find yourself with a seat at the 1976 Canada Cup, where Canada had a hard struggle to win the final on home ice—not against the all-conquering Russians, who finished tied for third with Sweden in the round robin, but against the Czechs. It’s simply not true that women’s hockey has arrived at the state of maturity that men’s hockey stood at “30 or 40 years ago”. The correct figure would surely be more like 60 or 70. And there is no evidence of any progress toward parity whatsoever.

The National Post‘s Scott Stinson argues in defence of women’s hockey that the IOC’s decision-making about what sports belong at the Winter Games is incomprehensible and silly, which it is, and that it is compromised by politics and money, which it is, and that some of these sports are sheer cold-weather tomfoolery, as some of them surely are. But the parity problem is the only one that Rogge raised, and it is distinct from all these considerations. The biathlon may seem ridiculous—though, frankly, nothing much that Canadians do is as important to the existence of Canada as practical skill at skiing-and-shooting may be to the northern neighbours of Russia or Germany. What counts in addressing Rogge’s argument is that the biathlon is legitimately competitive. The historic medals in the sport are distributed fairly widely; gold and silver aren’t the exclusive preserve of anybody.

Should the IOC bring back women’s hockey in 2014? The strongest argument in favour is not the argument that the sport is racing headlong toward some hypothetical future of genuine international competitiveness. It’s the argument from gender equity—if we let the men play, the women should be entitled to—but everybody knows that one won’t get you very far with the IOC. The wisest counsel for fans of the women’s game is probably to be prepared for life outside the Olympics. If your dignity depends on being involved with the International Olympic Committee, that’s a problem in itself: it means you’re looking for dignity in a very inappropriate place.

Consider baseball. It didn’t feel threatened when the IOC cast it into outer darkness; millions consider it a thing worth doing, watching, and enjoying for its own sake. (And if those millions were mere thousands, that would be all right too.) Its mythology and popularity stand apart from and above the lust for gold medals. In fact, baseball doesn’t have any physical trophies of real significance; the number of people who can name the last 10 Cy Young Award winners in each league is at least a hundred times greater than the number who can tell you what the damn thing looks like.

Hockey, as Canadians traditionally conceive of it, isn’t like this; it’s the product of a monarchical culture where silverware has denoted heritage, survival, and memory for several thousand years. So it’s hard for us to see past the shinies. But I suspect the lady hockeyists will have to learn to. Starting right about now.

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