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Jan. 24, 2016 — A regrettable excuse with awful ramifications

There are only about 200 days until the start of the field hockey competition at the Rio Olympics.

Twenty-four teams from all parts of the globe will be playing for the medals.

All parts, that is, except Africa.

South Africa’s men and women are the current continental champions, having won the most recent qualifying tournaments, and that alone should have earned them automatic berths to Rio.

However, the South African Sport Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) has consistently thrown up barriers in the way of both the men’s and women’s field hockey teams to take advantage of what they had seemingly earned.

Last week, Leander Negre, the president of FIH, the world governing body of field hockey, weighed in during a meeting of field hockey journalists from around the globe.

“I think after [Nelson] Mandela, they still think of hockey as a white sport,” Negre said. “The National Federation perhaps didn’t do much to attract black people to play hockey and maybe that is the feeling of SASCOC. We create a very nice system of qualification – quality through the World League and through the continental events and the pity is that SASCOC don’t accept the criteria.”

I can’t fathom this. How can a governing body disallow an entire participatory group for a lack of diversity? If this was the case, you could disallow entire teams or the entire pool of competitors in a particular sport.

Think of it: when was the last time a Hispanic or Latino placed in a Winter Olympic event? Should the U.S. men’s basketball team be kicked out of Rio if it doesn’t have a white player? How many brown-skinned players were in the ice hockey competition at Sochi?

But these questions have not prevented governing bodies from sending what they think are the finest representative of their country — regardless of race — to the Olympics.

Now, I think Negre had to say something about this situation because he’s thinking down the road. As South Africa is pretty much the best team on the African continent, the teams are being held hostage by SASCOC. And if SASCOC continues its intransigence, Africa won’t have any representation in any world tournament.

Which could very well endanger the sport’s Olympic status; in order for a sport to remain in the Olympic program, a sport has to have a certain penetration on several continents. In 2008, men’s sports had to be played by at least 75 nations on four continents, with women in 40 nations on three continents.

If FIH loses Africa — a place where the sport is traced back some five millenia — it is going to hurt more than just the players on the continent. It’s going to lead to a perception that the sport is on a downward spiral.

Not what you want headed into an Olympics.

 

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