Long Read: Diet hockey, not just a fad

As far as hockey venues go, this one was new.

A downtown drop-in lawn, on the shore of a lake, boats moored in the marina to one side, surrounded by giant trees with mountains in the distance, and a host city that has no hockey tradition or history apart from the To be home to the suits that rule the game.

In this cozy setting, the shortest version of ice hockey, 5s, made its senior debut in Lausanne last weekend. Everything – the compact venue, fast and short games, trimmed teams and overall youthful vibe – was designed to introduce the sport to a newer audience. More precisely to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has its headquarters in the Swiss city.

It was, quite simply put, a pitch to consider 5s as a future Olympic sport. And that sparked a debate unprecedented in hockey’s recent history.

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The fears go beyond traditionalists’ usual grievances against upstarts. This time it’s about survival. What was once considered whispers has turned into rebellious roars in some circles that the 5s will eventually replace the traditional 11-a-side version at the Olympics.

International Hockey Federation (FIH) chief executive Thierry Weil has dismissed those concerns. “A lot of people are concerned that 5s could replace 11s in the Olympics. I made it clear that that’s not going to happen,” Weil said.

The former FIFA manager’s vigorous rebuttal hasn’t mollified the skeptics. And the division of world hockey was evident when the teams landed in Lausanne. The Asian sides – India, Pakistan and Malaysia, who are usually slow to embrace change – were in full force; The giants of Europe, who have never shied away from innovation in sport, gave him a total snub.

When hockey switched from grass to artificial turf in the 1970s, the basic nature of the sport remained the same. In 5s, the game as we know it is virtually unrecognizable.

As the name suggests, each team is allowed to field five players, including the goalkeeper, and make four substitutions; a game has two halves of 10 minutes each; there is no “D”, meaning a goal can be scored from anywhere on the “playing field” – which is half the size of a normal hockey field – once the player crosses the halfway line; and the Boundary Boards can be used to ricochet the ball, giving players the ability to use the resulting speed and angle in attacking moves.

The ball is out of play only when it has completely crossed the boundary boards on the sideline or the endline. This means that in most cases, stoppages only happen when a player gets injured.

Press for the 5s

It is understandable why the FIH is pushing this format.

For all its history, the 11-on-11 version remains a high-investment sport that has constrained growth in most of Asia, Africa, and South America. On the field, hockey is experiencing perhaps one of its most competitive eras, with each of the top eight teams in men’s football able to beat each other and countries like France, Ireland and Japan occasionally making a splash.

Off the pitch, however, the sport is not in the best of shape with website reporting that the FIH suffered a loss of almost £500,000 in 2019. With no bidders for the Men’s World Cup, India is set to host the event for the third time in 13 years.

And at the Olympics, it’s one of the few sports that runs the full length of the Games but offers only two medals, has nearly 400 athletes and struggles with stadium attendance, TV viewership and social media engagement all crucial parameters that are now used to determine a sport’s place in the Games.

The FIH has seen what T20 has done to cricket from a financial perspective and how 3×3 basketball fits seamlessly into the Olympics alongside the traditional format. It hopes that the dramatic settings – like squash, 5-a-side “courts” that can be set up practically anywhere – combined with easy accessibility, high scoring and fast-paced games will make hockey “cool” for the younger generation.

Such formats are immediately attractive to the IOC, which aims to focus the Olympic program on youth, streamline the Games and reduce the cost burden on the host cities.

“We were very pleased that the goal we were aiming for was achieved. It introduced the sport to a lot of people who didn’t know it,” Weil said of the Lausanne exhibition event, adding that representatives from the IOC were there to study the format. “It exceeded our expectations.”

From a marketing point of view maybe. But the gameplay lacked all of the subtle finer elements that make ice hockey exciting. The games were fast-paced with many goals scored, but there was little body faking or dribbling or even intelligent build-up play. Most of the time, the ball was hit towards the goal from a distance, raising safety concerns.

return from Europe

The European giants have kept their distance and didn’t want to add legitimacy to the tournament. This could be due to the fact that most players are unfamiliar with this concept coupled with the fact that the best players and teams were not part of the event.

The Hockey Paper reported that Germany and Belgium planned to send a team of former greats but decided against it after being told not to compete under national flags by the European Association of Hockey Clubs. According to the report, Spain did not send a team as some of the country’s top clubs were opposed to the format, while England and the Netherlands also stayed away.

EHCO founder Leandro Martínez Zurita said they don’t want to encourage the end of 11-on-11. “If they (European nations) had sent teams under flags, the FIH would use that to promote Hockey 5 and market it as a huge success,” he was quoted as saying by The Hockey Paper.

Weil said the reactions of European nations were “understandable” and “potentially unnatural” as those nations helped develop the traditional format. “But I’m sure they will come after a while,” he said.

Indian hug

When this format debuted at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, India was slow. Since then, however, the country has finished on the podium at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games and started organizing tournaments on a national level – partly because the FIH is currently led by an Indian – Narinder Batra.

India’s adoption of the format is also crucial as the IOC meeting, where the program for the Los Angeles Olympics is expected to be finalized, will be held in Mumbai next year. After his re-election last year, Batra said it was his “dream” to see 5s at the Olympics. Even Weil said that should be the “ultimate” goal. “(But) like other sports that have two different formats in the Olympics, we could have both, 11s and 5s,” he added.

N Ramachandran, Narinder Batra, International Olympic Committee, International Hockey Federation Narinder Batra. (File)

Something has to give for that. The IOC has been very careful to ensure that the total number of participants per sport does not increase dramatically with every game. To stay within the allotted quota, Weil has suggested that one possible way to make room for 5s at the Olympics could be to reduce the number of 11-a-side 11 teams, which currently stands at 12.

Weil says an attempt to include the format in the Olympics will only be made if 5s become “relevant and accepted”. However, given the FIH’s aggressive marketing, there is speculation that the Olympic pitch could be as early as the 2028 Los Angeles Games – coincidentally, the first Senior 5’s tournament took place exactly a year before the IOC officials met in Mumbai.

It gives the FIH one year to continue presenting the sport’s shortest format and bring the European nations into the group of five. “Over time, they will connect,” says Weil. “I will continue to recommend Hockey 5s to them.”

The rules of hockey 5s

* A match lasts 20 minutes, divided into two halves of 10 minutes each.

* Each team can field 5 players and make four substitutions.

* The playing field is about half the size of a normal playing field.

* There is no ‘D’ around the gate. So the attacker can score from anywhere on the field within his offensive half of the field.

* Unlike 11v11 hockey, if the game is stopped and restarted when the ball goes out of play, the ball can hit the boundary boards in 5 seconds and come back into play without interruption. The ball is only considered out of play if it goes over the boundary boards.

* There are no penalty corners in 5s. However, a penalty stroke may be awarded.

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