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July 16, 2017 — Has India struck a fatal blow against a sport it once dominated?

One week ago, India announced that it would be pulling both its men’s and its women’s programs out of the Hockey Pro League, a forthcoming FIH competition promising a series of competitive international matches on the home soil of the competitors (except for the Pakistan men, who will play their home matches in Scotland).

For India, a nation which dominated the 20th Century in men’s field hockey and which has been pioneering the professionalism of the sport in the last couple of years with a professional men’s league, it’s mind-boggling decision.

In the history of international sport, there has been plenty of nationalistic overtones when it comes to whether a country would even participate in a particular competition. England refused to be part of any FIFA World Cup until 1950 because of disputes over the ownership of the game of soccer.. Canada sat out international amateur ice hockey competition from 1970 to 1979 in a dispute over the use of professionals. Sweden joined Canada in sitting out the 1976 Olympics.

But this is different. India based a lot of its post-colonial identity on its dominance of men’s field hockey in the Olympics. India developed heroes, a narrative, a significant player development infrastructure, and success on the world stage.

That success has dwindled on the men’s side, but the women’s team has seen a rise in form that saw them win the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the 2003 Afro-Asian Games, and the 2004 Hockey Asia Cup. The Eves also qualified for the Rio Olympics, its first go at the tournament for 36 years.

But despite the fact that the Indian women have improved significantly, the powers-that-be at Hockey India have not started a companion women’s league to go with the Hockey India League.

Indeed, Hockey India has claimed that the men’s league has lost money over the five seasons the circuit has been run, despite sizable crowds, exposure over television and the Internet, and the substantial salaries of the players in the league.

The logic is that Hockey India needs to direct its resources to the domestic men’s league, rather than try to spend money for both its men’s and women’s national teams to compete in the new FIH Pro League.

I’m not buying the logic, or the official story from Hockey India. You have to ask how the revenue from the league not directed toward player salaries was spent or mismanaged.

Worse, the optics indicate that Hockey India is, again, treating its men and women hockey players unequally. In closing off Indian participation in the Hockey Pro League to prop up Hockey India’s finances, it has deprived half its population of the opportunity to play its favorite sport at a professional level.

I guess we’ll find out what Hockey India is going to do after a reported July 26th session.

 

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