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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Tokyo Olympics vindicates FIH’s special treatment of Indian hockey

The cash-strapped FIH and a struggling India entered into what was seen as a marriage of convenience back in 2013.

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
September 19, 2021 12:27:54 am
The India men's hockey team poses for a photo with their bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics. (AP)

In 2013, after the sport narrowly dodged an Olympic-sized snub, a desperate International Hockey Federation (FIH) immediately turned towards India for help – and to help.

Eight years later, both are smiling – for India, the performances of the men’s and women’s teams at the Tokyo Olympics could be the springboard for future success; for the FIH, it could potentially be a turning point financially, or so they hope. And hockey, which almost got dropped from the Tokyo Olympics, may well have secured its spot in future Games.

“There is far more attention on hockey now in India. And that is good for international hockey, good for the FIH,” the world body’s chief executive Thierry Weil says.

Back in 2013, the mood in India and the world wasn’t so optimistic. In February that year, six months after the London Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) reviewed all 26 sports on its programme back then based on 39 criteria including popularity, TV ratings and ticket sales. The purpose of the exercise was to remove the sports that performed worst on these counts from the Tokyo Olympics. Hockey just about survived that test.

In an instant, Leandro Negre, a Spanish hockey Olympian who was FIH president at the time, looked to India. “India is very important in keeping world hockey alive,” Negre had said a day after the IOC vote in 2013.

But Indian hockey itself was dormant and slipping into oblivion during that period – the team had finished 12th out of 12 teams in London, and was ranked so low that it couldn’t make the cut for some marquee international competitions.

The cash-strapped FIH and a struggling India entered into what was seen as a marriage of convenience. Smelling the commercial potential, the FIH took a step that is rare in any international sport: organise one major tournament in one country each year. Not just that, rules were tweaked in some cases to accommodate India in important international tournaments.

This way, India got a chance to play with the world’s best teams every year, something they’d been craving for. The team improved year on year, won the junior men’s World Cup in 2016 and some of the players from that team became the heroes of the bronze-medal winning side in Tokyo.

In the boardroom

As India’s performance improved, so did its influence on the administrative and commercial sides. Today, half of FIH’s sponsors are Indian companies and its president is also from India – Narinder Batra. But despite the Indian hockey team making rapid strides, the world body found it tough to maximise its revenues. In January this year, it was reported that the FIH made a loss of $715,000 in 2019.

Weil hopes the performances of Indian teams will help them “sign one or two commercial contracts.”

“(With) the increase of attractiveness of hockey in India, I am sure we will have more talks with companies for sponsorship,” Weil, a former FIFA marketing director, says.

“The performance of the Indian team (in Tokyo) means more people will play, which works well for us. A lot of TV ratings, too… in Germany, it was the highest for hockey games, which we are not used to. That shows the potential of hockey and we can attract more international brands,” Weil adds.

TV ratings will become crucial when a review for the Tokyo Olympics is conducted given that all events were held without spectators due to Covid-19 protocols. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, hockey struggled to fill stands and most matches were played in half-empty stadiums. But in Tokyo, hockey seems to have garnered a good audience.

In Belgium, the gold medal match between the eventual champions and Australia was watched by 266,000 people, the second-most after heptathlon gold medallist Nafissatou Thiam’s event on August 5, which got 287,000 viewers according to Hockey Belgium. In Germany, Weil says local media reported that the match between them and the Netherlands had the most viewers on TV across all sports involving the country’s athletes.

“The TV ratings would be high in India, too, of course. I am sure our ratings are much better than previous Olympics. Maybe at the end of the year, we will be able to make comparisons (to previous editions),” Weil says.

Cash cow

In Europe, more eyeballs haven’t directly led to more revenue generation, which means the FIH keeps coming back to India with its big-ticket events. India has hosted two out of the last three men’s World Cups and will once again conduct FIH’s flagship tournament in 2023. Belgium, the world and Olympic champions, too had offered to host the 2023 World Cup but it is learnt that India promised the FIH 3.5 million Swiss Francs as ‘guaranteed profit’ from the event, 1.5 million more than Belgium.

Weil says they want to be ‘careful’ that they don’t come to India with ‘everything’ and ‘people do not take interest anymore’. Instead, he says the FIH now hopes to raise the standard of teams like ‘South Korea, Japan, South Africa and others’ through its new tournament, the Nations Cup.

“In the last couple of years, there was too much monopoly in the high (ranked) teams. It will be good for hockey if we start to mix it up and get teams like Japan, South Africa, South Korea and others to compete for podium places at the Olympics like India has,” Weil says.

At least, Weil won’t have to fight multiple fires. There was increasing speculation that the FIH and IOC were keen to make five-a-side hockey an Olympic sport. But with a bronze medal and a fourth-place finish, it is hoped that the IOC, which is seen trying to court the giant Indian market, will keep the 11-a-side format intact, given the current interest levels in the country.

“The popularity of hockey has increased with this. I think that FIH is really happy about what happened, because I don’t think we have to worry about our Olympic status for the following years,” former India women’s team coach Sjoerd Marijne had said in an Indian Express Idea Exchange last month.

It’s almost like the sport has come full circle since 2013. And Weil, too, does not play down the significance of India’s performance vis-à-vis the health of world hockey. “If it’s good for India, it’s good for the FIH.”

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