By Callum Murray in The Hague
At least eight International Olympic Committee members, including its president Thomas Bach, direct from signing an agreement with new IOC TOP sponsor Bridgestone in Tokyo, are expected to attend this weekend’s men’s and women’s finals of the Hockey World Cup in The Hague in the Netherlands.
The presence of the IOC members is significant as the FIH continues a new policy of focusing on its international relations, after field hockey last year came close to being recommended by the IOC’s executive board for exclusion from the Olympic Games.
Field hockey’s appearance among five sports that featured in voting by the executive board to determine which one it should recommend for exclusion from the programme of the 2020 games came as a “big surprise” and should serve as a “wake-up call” for the FIH, Leandro Negre, its president, said last year.
In the event, field hockey was eliminated from the voting, along with modern pentathlon, taekwondo and canoeing, with wrestling controversially being recommended for exclusion.
The members expected to attend this weekend include: former IOC president and now honorary president Jacques Rogge from Belgium; New Zealand’s Barry Maister (himself an Olympic field hockey gold medallist, who is also advising the FIH, the sport’s world governing body, on issues including its relations with the IOC); Spain’s Marisol Casado; Great Britain’s Craig Reedie; Belgium’s Pierre-Olivier Beckers, Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks; and Fiji’s Robin Mitchell.
Speaking ahead of today’s men’s semi-finals at the Kyocera Stadium in The Hague, Kelly Fairweather, the FIH’s chief executive, told Sportcal: “We had the feeling that some people didn’t understand what we are doing recently in the sport; we wanted to showcase the sport, to enable them to experience the atmosphere.”
Last night’s second women’s semi-final between the home team the Netherlands and Argentina exemplified the passionate, but good-natured atmosphere that the FIH would like the IOC members to experience. Security was minimal and a wide range of ages and both sexes were well represented in the crowd and in a surprisingly extensive event ‘village’ outside the stadium, featuring retail franchises and activities including hockey coaching sessions for young people. The Netherlands won the match 4-0, undoubtedly contributing to the celebratory atmosphere.
The 15,000-seat stadium (normally used for soccer but converted with the addition of an artificial hockey pitch for the World Cup) was sold out, and organisers expect 250,000 people to have passed through the turnstiles by the time of the men’s final on Sunday.
Fairweather added: “We wanted them [IOC members] to see that a World Cup is comparable to an Olympic Games, with a high level of competition, a great gender balance, good crowds and high-quality sport. Every federation is looking at its international relations strategy [since last year’s controversial IOC executive board recommendation]. For example, we invited the secretary general of the Indian Olympic Association here. We want to create a network and showcase our sport.”
Negre added: “Sometimes we don’t really show the potential of our sport, we are too modest in that. We realised our mistake, and we need to correct it. But it [the IOC executive board recommendation] was more a problem of procedure than the weakness of our sport. We are strong, and our relations with IOC members are very friendly; many of them have a link with hockey. The approach of the new [IOC] president will be completely different, as part of Agenda 2020.”
Bach’s Agenda 2020 initiative, which is reviewing a wide range of issues relating to the IOC and the Olympic Games, including the process for ‘refreshing’ the Olympic programme with the addition of new sports, is expected to unveil its proposals for changes in December this year.
Achievements of this World Cup, according to Negre and Fairweather, include an extremely high standard of television production by host broadcaster NOS; surpassing a target of 1.5 million views on YouTube (the number of views has already reached “well over 2 million”); and attracting over half a million fans on Facebook.”
The event represents “quite a significant moment in the development of our sport,” according to Fairweather.
However, the 2014 Hockey World Cup is virtually unique in bringing together the men’s and women’s tournaments simultaneously in a single city (and two stadia) in arguably the world’s most passionate field hockey market.
The chances of repeating this format are considerably reduced in future by the fact that from 2018 (when the women’s event will be held in England and the men’s in India), both competitions will increase from 12 to 16 teams, drawn together in four groups of four. The increased scale of the events means that that it is unlikely that a single city could host both competitions simultaneously, in future, although Negre said that the FIH is investigating the possibility of staging them in several cities in the same country, a blueprint that is well established by soccer’s Fifa World Cup.
Despite the success of this year’s edition of the World Cup, Fairweather said that there are plenty of improvements that can still be made to the format. He said: “I’m a firm believer that the event doesn’t have to be bigger to be better. It’s about the fan experience. We’re looking to work on a number of things. Sports presentation is always challenging, but we will look to push the boundaries. Four 15-minute quarters [a recent innovation in hockey] gives more opportunity to react with the crowd. Sometimes there’s a lull in the crowd. We want to get the crowd participating.
“With TV we’re working hard to enhance the spectator experience, with better graphics and more data analysis. For example, in penalty corners, we could look at the goalkeeper’s strengths: which side does he make the most saves? Graphics are becoming the norm in sport and we can use them to attract more people to watch the game, and get a better insight.”
In January, Star India, the pay-television broadcaster owned by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, and which runs the Star Sports network, was appointed by the FIH to distribute international media rights for FIH events in all territories worldwide except Argentina in an eight-year deal beginning in 2015.
Star India will also act as host broadcaster for “key FIH events” taking place in India, one of the sport’s key markets, and throughout the world.
The move represents a “game-changer,” for the FIH, according to Fairweather.
Representatives of Star India are also expected to attend the World Cup matches this weekend, and Fairweather said: “It’s an opportunity for them to see the World Cup first-hand, and for us to have discussions and to look at the production in place. We’ll also have meetings to talk about 2015, going forward.”
The FIH is also planning a television seminar in September with Star and representatives of “a couple of other broadcasters, to see how we can innovate, and go forward.”