FIH chief executive officer Kelly Fairweather says the changes made to the world game mean hockey is no longer “grappling” for its place in the Olympic Games.
In the wake of London 2012, the sport received a shock when it was named on a shortlist of sports that could be axed from the Games. Hockey survived the cut but it was, nonetheless, a wake-up call for the FIH and a series of changes have been implemented in recent years that Fairweather says have raised the game.
“We felt we had a good Games in London but we didn’t get the numbers,” Fairweather said.
Hockey is in for 2020 but, after that, the programme for the Games is not confirmed. After Rio, the International Olympic Committee will do a review with the FIH placing a key focus on meeting the criteria laid out over the last four years for further inclusion.
“I don’t believe we are still grappling for a place. I think hockey has made many strides in the last four years. You have all heard of the hockey revolution which is year 3 of 12.
“This is a long-term strategy because we believe it takes three [Olympic] cycles to move into a new space. We have made massive progress and I think it will be very interesting to see what numbers come out of here.”
Quarter-finals, more meaningful matches, four quarters, long corners, playing the ball over the shoulder and improved television production systems have been cited as key changes.
“The quality of the hockey has been exceptional. Quarter-finals have been a massive success as have the removal of the classification matches which no one is really interested in.
“The OBS [Olympic Broadcast Service] have also tried to get much closer to the athletes – something we have done at our own events with BT. We have seen very good pictures going out to the world with an increased in spec with spider cam.”
Indeed, the know-how of the cameramen was a key feature in Rio. In Beijing, OBS employed a Slovak crew who initially thought they were covering ice hockey. In 2012 in London, the crew was Italian.
For Rio, the television production was carried out by Dutch broadcaster NOS who have regular know-how which has helped the output to the world markedly.
The stopped clock for penalty corners have also been a source of happiness for the FIH with Director of Sport David Luckes sayings: “We think quarters have been a real success for players, supporters and, especially, broadcasters – as has stopping the clock for goals and penalty corners.
“If you go back to the Germany v New Zealand game [when the Germans scored twice in the last 41 seconds], if you hadn’t stopped the clock for the goal, time would have run out.
“There’s lots of things the competitions committee have put in place to move the game forward as part of the Hockey Revolution.”
For Ken Read, the secretary of the FIH’s competition’s committee, he says being allowed to play the ball over the shoulder has been a significant improvement.
“In London, Oskar Deecke in the Germany vs Australia game took one over his shoulder and scored… no goal. Here, a ball across for Argentina and he scores over his shoulder, it’s a huge change.”
Fairweather agreed: “I saw that [Deeke] goal when I was sitting next to an IOC member from Germany and he asked ‘why isn’t that a goal?’ That was only four years ago. We all think it has made a massive influence in the play. The players are exceptionally skilled, playing cheeky lobs, taking the ball in the air at pace.”
Indeed, Cedric Charlier’s glorious high control played a central part in setting up John-John Dohmen’s memorable goal in the semi-final for Belgium against the Netherlands.
The disappointment for the FIH was definitely the empty stands, a feature of the Olympic Games across the board. Indeed, certain sessions were listed as sold out while they were informed by the local organising committee that 85% of tickets were sold but this was visibly not the case.
“Ticketing has been the biggest challenge for everyone,” Fairweather said. “It has been difficult for us to understand how we have 85% sold out, even 100%, and then seen the empty seats that we have seen here and at other venues.
“Obviously, there has been a high attrition rate from those who got tickets and those that turned up. Contributing to that, we need to be honest. It is more difficult to get to Deodoro than other venues and we were quite disappointed to not be in the Olympic Park.
“We’ve really given it our best shot to make the most of it for the people that have come here. You can see the passion of the fans but we would have loved to have seen more locals.”
Anecdotally, the local organising committee had allocated tickets for local communities who either did not show up or, as some suggested, the tickets were still sitting at the bottom of someone’s draw.
Fairweather said that they did secure some extra tickets to be released for the semi-finals and medal matches but did add: “It’s such a shame that you have a great game and you have Argentineans, the Belgians and the Dutch standing outside.”
Nonetheless, the initial numbers for the television audience have been impressive, helped by the success of the Argentinean men and the British women for whom the BBC took the massive step to move the nine o’clock news in favour of the final.
Fairweather adds: “Reports of good numbers from broadcasting partners, our social media numbers are good. Time will tell but we feel we have put everything in place and our campaign has been much more joined up with our national associations and our partners.
“[On the field], we are seeing a lot more competition between the countries. One of the things we wanted was to close the gap. We have seen Belgium and Argentina reach the men’s final, USA women coming up, India’s men starting to play well again. It’s a pity we didn’t have an African team.
“I think the quarter-finals have helped because they have allowed teams to think they have a shot at this. Talking to the coaches, any one of eight men’s teams could win the event which is what we want to happen.”
The next challenge is to improve the experience in the stadium for the fans.
“We do have to work more on the way we present the sport. We have to think of the person coming in who is not a hockey fan sees the game, make it easier to understand, have more fun – the comparison here has always been with rugby 7s and beach volleyball.
“We have some work to do. But we have the game sorted with the speed of it, the wizardry of the skills. These are real athletes across the board and our job now is to promote that and present that much better. That’s part of our strategy.”