Mercy Rules and Selective Media at the 2010 Olympic Games
So by now I’m sure that everyone has heard about how Canada thrashed Slovakia 18-0 in the opening round of Olympic Women’s Hockey. An entirely expected result when you match up the powerhouse Canadian team against a Slovakian team that’s never seen the Olympics before.
The win brought criticisms of women’s hockey to the forefront of Olympic coverage. There was talk of a “mercy rule” being invoked to prevent such blowouts, and questions were raised about whether women’s hockey should even be an Olympic event, given the great talent disparity between North America and the rest of the world (while Canada was celebrating the 18-0 victory, the U.S. proceeded to win their game 12-1 — we’re almost certainly headed for another Canada/U.S. matchup in the finals). News organizations employed grand hyperboles like “slaughter” and “massacre”, and talked of the “bloodthirsty crowd”.
I’m a little disappointed (though not truly surprised) at this sort of biased coverage. Far from being “bloodthirsty”, the Canadian crowd applauded the Slovakian team’s arrival on the ice, and gave them a standing ovation at the end of the game. I caught part of the game on TV, and was pleased to see that the crowd seemed politely subdued towards the end of things — they clapped and cheered, of course, when goals were scored, but they were certainly not over-the-top about it. The mismatch was obvious, and I think that most people felt quite a bit of sympathy for the outplayed underdogs.
As for the concept of a “mercy rule”, it’s just silly and condescending. This isn’t Timbits hockey, with a bunch of 4 and 5 year olds who are just playing to have fun. This is grown women competing on an international stage. If teams are asked to “slow down” and “play nice”, it undermines the spirit of the competition. If games are cut short because one team is beating the other by too great a margin, you’re not preventing routs and embarrassment — the losing team still ends up sad, and now they didn’t even get to play a full game in the Olympics. These women went into the game knowing that Canada was almost certainly going to win, and that they were likely going to do it by a pretty big margin. They still put on their big-girl pants and went out there to play. And you know what? They had a pretty good time. A quote from this article on vancouver2010.com :
Despite Saturday’s loss this was the greatest hockey moment for Slovakian defenceman Barbora Bremova who says she typically plays in front of a crowd of about 40 people, made up of mostly family members, at home.
She is one of just 263 registered female players in the country.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” Bremova said through a translator. “I am disappointed we lost but it was incredible to play against Canadian players like Hayley Wickenheiser.”
That’s a pretty different story than the one given by Yahoo Sports, which had this to say:
CTV hockey analyst Cassie Campbell called Slovakia’s inaugural beating in the Olympics a “great moment” for women’s hockey – much in the same way, we imagine, a flyweight getting his face punched in by Mike Tyson would be a great moment for boxing.
CTV managed to be a little bit more balanced in their analysis, but they still raised the question of whether women’s hockey should even be an Olympic event:
The result will surely renew questions of why women’s hockey is in the Games given the vast talent disparity between North American[sic] and the rest of the world … you can bet there were some furious female ski jumpers watching this farce at home, confused by the International Olympic Committee’s cafeteria standards for excluding sports. Ditto baseball and softball players, whose sports have been eliminated from the Summer Games despite superior depth of class.
Why is women’s hockey played at the Olympic level, you ask? Because despite the fact that there are still some major talent disparities, it’s a sport that is developing to be something great on an international level. While Canada and the U.S. are definitely considered the superpowers of the women’s hockey world, countries like Sweden are becoming competitive — just look at Sweden’s upset win against the U.S. in Torino.
Beyond just the fact that women’s hockey has some serious potential, we have to remember that high-level women’s hockey is still a new thing — not just at the Olympics, but in general around the world. Women in countries with developing programs, like Slovakia, need something to aspire to — seeing their countrywomen playing on the international stage is an inspiration, even if those women get routed, because a young female player can still say “one day I’ll go to the Olympics”. Without a forum like the Olympic games to bring it into the spotlight, women’s hockey might be forever relegated to late-night coverage on ESPN2, and women hockey players could be left with very few role models and very little inspiration.
Being a woman playing a “man’s game” is tough enough to begin with — I can well remember the days of co-ed soccer, when the boys on the team would make fun of me, refuse to pass me the ball, and tell me to go home and play with dolls. Having the legitimacy of being an Olympic sport makes being a woman in hockey that much easier, and that much more appealing. There’s no reason to take that away just because some of the teams haven’t lived up to their full potential just yet. Give it twenty years or so, and Canada will be fighting a lot harder to keep that spot at the top of the podium.
Edit: February 17th, 2:16am
I just had to add something more to this post, after watching the Canadian men thoroughly thrash the poor Norwegians. I notice that despite the lopsided score (8 to nil), there’s no commentary about possibly enforcing a “mercy rule” here, and certainly no hint that the men’s hockey tournament doesn’t belong in the Olympics. While I do hate to be one to jump on the sexism train, it does seem like there’s a bit of a disparity here in the way that the two genders’ games are being viewed. Just thought I’d mention it.