With its future as Olympic sport under scrutiny, there are more than just medals at stake for hockey players at the Rio Games and the pressure is on to produce a crowd-pleasing tournament, cementing their place in the top-flight of world competition.
Despite ticket sales of 630,000 making it the third biggest-selling event at the 2012 Games in London, hockey narrowly avoided being dropped from the Olympic roster in 2013 over concerns organisers were not doing enough to engage new fans.
“There was a perception that we were not a fan-focused sport,” said Kelly Fairweather, chief executive of the International Hockey Federation (FIH).
“To be honest, we were shocked … It was a bit of a wake up call.”
The FIH has responded by introducing a number of changes to the way hockey will be played and broadcast at the Rio Games.
Those include a move to 15-minute quarters and scheduling more time for television replays and analysis to showcase players’ virtuoso skills with a ball moving at more than 160 kilometres an hour, Fairweather said.
For the first time in Olympic competition, the Rio hockey tournament will also feature quarter-finals, making it the last team sport to adopt the format at the Games.
Fairweather said he hoped the move would give fans the thrills and excitement of an extended knock-out competition while raising the stakes for teams who now have to finish in the top four of each group, leaving little room for error in the early stages of the tournament.
“Hockey has had a lot of catching up to do,” he said. “The Games are the pinnacle of our sport … To have been removed would have been devastating.”
Underlining the heightened attention from top sporting officials, International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon joined hockey fans watching the opening stages of the Rio Games’ first men’s pool match between Argentina and the Netherlands on Saturday.
Argentina, who are currently seventh in the FIH world rankings, fought hard to hold their world No. 2 and London 2012 silver-medallist opponents to a 3-3 draw, delighting fans on both sides and setting the tone for what organisers hope will be a competition worthy of this and future Olympics.