By Courtney Szto and Brett Pardy
Rosie Dimanno, columnist for the Toronto Star, came out guns-a-blazing when she wrote that the women’s hockey competition is “an easy gold” due to the lack of parity in the game. She referenced Canada’s first two wins where they outscored their opponents 23-2 as “abomination domination.” The weird part was when she suggested that the lack of parity should result in the removal of women’s hockey from the Olympics.
Naturally, women’s hockey defended itself. Jayna Hefford and Allyson Fox responded by pointing out that in the early days of the men’s tournament there were many blow out games and Canada won 6 out of 7 tournaments (with amateur level players). It seems that Dimanno’s problem is not so much with domination by two nations for the gold, but more that there is a large gap between silver and bronze. We love hockey, so our opinion is always biased. But, we have also staked our reputation on being able to critique the very thing that we love so that it can be better. Hence, Dimanno’s “complaint,” while inflammatory, superficial, flawed, and harmful, is not necessarily incorrect. So let’s talk about this notion of parity in high performance sport.
1.) The Olympics has not been about parity for a long time, especially not the winter Olympics. To raise the issue of parity is an important task but we have to look at it on a broader scale and not just through the lens of one sport. It has been well researched that medal counts are dominated by rich countries and many countries leave each Olympic Games with zero medals next to their name, usually poor countries (Forrest et al., 2017). Bernard and Busse (2004) found that “total GDP is the best predictor of national Olympic performance…[and] The forced mobilization of resources by governments can also play a role in medal counts” (p. 417) with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries as the example between 1960-1996. The United States regularly brings home over 100 medals during Summer Games but high population countries like India and Nigeria “have won fewer than 50 between them in the history of the Olympic Games” (Forrester et al., 2017, p. 118). Moreover, Forrester et al. (2017) point out that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has tried to clamp down on certain countries dominating individual sports by limiting the number of athletes that a nation can send per event (e.g., London 2012 – for diving, countries could only send 2 athletes for an individual event and 1 for for a synchronized event), but some countries still clean up. In this example, two countries won more than half of all the medals available in diving. Wrestling is arguably the most “democratic” sport based on training costs and medal counts; yet, in 2014 the IOC proposed that wrestling be excluded from all future games (it has since been reinstated). Thus, while Dimanno might be in search of parity it is not exactly a concern that the IOC shares.
The disparities between nations is further exacerbated during the Winter Olympics because “winter” does not exist for much of the world and winter sports are more expensive and gear intensive than many summer sports. Only 15 countries regularly win medals at the Winter Olympics, and most individual sports are competitive between only 3-6 nations. Figure skating, the most Google searched winter sport, saw a run between 1964 and 2006 where the Soviet Union/Russia won 12 consecutive gold medals in pairs skating, often by significant margins. Germany has won 57% of all medals in luge and seven consecutive gold medals in women’s luge (and silver in 6 of the last 7 Games). The closest gap between them and the next non-German sled is often larger than the gap between 2nd and 5th. This dominance seems to amuse the media rather than raise issue for concern. The difference, however, is that dominance in a team sport is far more noticeable than in sports like luge.
The Paralympics also drive a larger wedge into this notion of parity because adapted sports equipment is all but out of reach for many countries. The Olympics have become an athletic arms race and this is a viable topic for discussion but getting rid of women’s hockey will hardly achieve parity in any interpretation.
Still, if money equals medals then why are Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, and Finland not on closer footing to Canada and the United States?
2.) Disproportionate funding. According to Hockey Canada’s 2019-2020 Annual Report, 18% of its expenditures was spent on national teams. That’s almost 1/5 of the entire budget to secure international success and 4% was allocated to “grow the game.” The imbalance between these expenditures is another conversation entirely but it should be no surprise why Canada is consistently in medal contention. USA Hockey allocated approximately 13% of its programming budget to national team development in 2021. A “cheap” medal it is not, in a financial sense. Clearly, Dimanno meant it with respect to the medal being low value but a budget is a values statement, and Hockey Canada and USA Hockey have put value on this medal in a way that other nations have decided against or are simply unable to do. In the 1980s, Canada literally re-vamped the entire national sports system to ensure success in international hockey (Donnelly & Kidd, 2015). She also discounts the added pressure put on the shoulders of the Canadian and American national teams because they carry the future of the sport on their shoulders. If the high tide raises all ships then they take this responsibility with considerable gravity, and this is a cost for which Dimanno doesn’t seem to care.
In 2018, Sweden was relegated and this resulted in “lost financial backing of the Swedish Olympic Committee for women’s ice hockey, which was the starting point of the financial issues for the funding of the program and financial support for the players.” Meaghan Johnson published a detailed piece last summer about Sweden’s downward spiral from its days as a medal contender in international competition. One man (Leif Boork) basically tanked the Swedish women’s program and in 2018 the team went on strike calling for enhanced support from the federation. The Swedish women challenged the lack of financial compensation, lack of insurance, limited ice time and poor travel conditions, inappropriate equipment, and just a general lack of care for their well-being and success. China has had similar issues with its federation with once considerable financial investment being cut in recent years and waning development interest. China’s efforts to compete on the world stage began in earnest in 2018 with the addition of two teams to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League but no amount of money is going to make an internationally competitive hockey team in four years. Not to mention the fact that this has been the most tumultuous four years in women’s hockey history. The fastest rise in developing a hockey program took the Soviet Union 27 years, and they had the advantage of being the first country to adopt off-ice training as a serious endeavour. So, how would pulling women’s hockey from the Olympics help either Sweden or China become more competitive?
The IIHF surveys federations to collect data on players, officials, and number of rinks. Unsurprisingly, Canada and the United States win these numbers with more players and rinks. Canada is listed as having 2,860 indoor rinks and 5,000 outdoor rinks, which is likely not counting impromptu backyard rinks. The United States has 1,535 indoor and 1,000 outdoor. Russia has more outdoor rinks at 5,944 but with fewer indoor rinks at 790. The other Group A & B teams are listed with the following indoor-outdoor rinks:
- Finland: 282-62
- Switzerland: 49-111
- Sweden: 363-34
- Japan: 117-50
- China: 537-285
- Czech Republic: 200-8
- Denmark: 27-0
Pension Plan Puppets further points out that the number of women/girls participating in hockey in Denmark has almost doubled in recent years, whereas men’s participation has essentially plateaued. The takeaway is that: “The ‘rest of the crowd’ at the top of the women’s game are at a different point in their lifecycle than Canada and the USA.” Dimanno argues that in 24 years we should see more equality in the women’s game. Twenty-four years is 6 winter Olympic cycles, and most of the women who played in those games have only recently retired. Hockey is not a sport like gymnastics where champions are made young; it takes 24 years to make a friggin Olympic hockey player! Hilary Knight was 9 years old when the first inclusion of women’s hockey occurred in 1998; Marie-Philip Poulin was 7. Women’s hockey in the Olympics is as old as Claire Thompson. If it is unreasonable to expect Thompson to be at the top of her game at age 24 then why would we expect the global infrastructure that supports her development to be fully formed in that same timespan?
3.) Federations provide funding because of Olympic inclusion. When South Korea was awarded the 2018 PyeongChang Games $20 million was invested into the Korean Ice Hockey Federation. Neither the men’s nor women’s teams had particularly noteworthy showings in 2018 but that money was injected into the sport because they had a spot in the tournament. The same thing happened with Japan’s national team for Nagano in 1998. While Japan is not yet a medal contender, 24 years later they are ranked 6th in the world, far ahead of the Japanese men’s team ranked at 25th. Competition on the international sporting stage is a political pawn that countries do not take lightly; hence, the investment in funds to not look a fool. The problem with women’s sports is that dominance by anyone makes our patience wear thin. Men’s hockey, on the other hand, has the privilege of consistent visibility, which means that lopsided wins are soothed over as “bad games” rather than questions of parity.
4.) Where else does women’s hockey belong? If Dimanno doesn’t think that women’s hockey belongs in the Olympics, it begs the question: Where does women’s hockey belong? There is literally nowhere else right now where women’s hockey gets this kind of stage. The fact that there is any development and growth in women’s hockey around the world is because of the Olympics, not in spite of it. Any consistent viewer of women’s hockey has seen the growth of the game and the talent develop across nations. Does it still look bad to those who tune in every 4 years? Of course it does. But that’s like reading every 4th page of a book and saying that it has poor flow and leaves a lot to the imagination. Women’s sports, in general, has a very short history and we are only now getting to the plot. It’s unfortunate that Dimanno’s attention hasn’t been captured in these introductory chapters but that’s her loss. What’s most hurtful is that someone with a platform to add texture and nuance to the story of women’s hockey decided to use that space to echo the sexism that comes from Twitter accounts with one follower. Never have we seen someone “advocate” for equality by getting rid of the opportunity all together. There are definitely problems with the Olympics with respect to parity but excluding women’s hockey will solve none of them.
Bernard, A. & Busse, M.R. (2004). Who wins the Olympic Games: Economic resources and medal counts. Review of Economics and Statistics, 86, 413-417.
Donnelly, P. & Kidd, B. (2015). Two solitudes: Grass-roots sport and high performance sport in Canada. In R. Bailey & M. Talbot (eds.), Elite sport and sport-for-all: Bridging the two cultures? (pp. 57-51). Routledge.
Forrest, D., McHale, I.G., Sanz, I. & Tena, J.D. (2017). An analysis of country medal shares in individual sports at the Olympics. European Sport Management Quarterly, 17(2), 117-131.
(Hockey in Society, February 11, 2022)