LUCKNOW: Former International Hockey Federation (FIH) president Leandro Negre opened a can of hot beans when he passed the following comment at the annual Hockey Writers Club in London this January. “At the beginning, it was a political issue,” he had said. “That’s my feeling. After (Nelson) Mandela, they still think of hockey as a white sport.”
Among other factors, the Spaniard felt that the national federation didn’t do much to attract black people to take up hokcey, and hence the decision not to send both the men’s and women’s teams to the Rio Olympics was a political move.
When that answer is presented verbatim to the South African junior coach, Garreth Ewing, who is here with the team for the junior World Cup, he takes his time before replying. “The situation is complicated, and there’s no doubt that baggage from the past needs to be unpacked.
“To say that hockey is a white sport is a dangerous generalisation, though. There’s widespread participation across racial lines. It (the sport) is, however, perceived as elitist and in South Africa, that often means white. I’ll let you look at the team competing here, both players and management, and will let you decide for yourself if we’re a multi-racial sport.”
The country received a shock following the sport minister’s decree on meeting race targets, and punitive punishments if those targets were missed. A few federations have run into problems, but hockey isn’t one of them. “There’s more organic growth in terms of transforming racial makeup of our teams, and discussions at selection level, certainly in age group teams, is seldom a problem anymore.
“It doesn’t affect our game as much as you imagine. Creating opportunities for people to play and grow as elite players is carried by schools and universities.”
You can create all opportunities, but where do these players get the motivation to play from? SASCOC, after all, did not even send the side to the Olympics because they weren’t considered a medal prospect. “It hurt SA hockey,” Ewing, who is also a member of the senior staff, says.
“I was hugely disappointed not to travelled to Rio. In terms of this group, however, it’s been a motivating factor. They want to set a new standard for the senior team, so that the Olympics is no longer something we narrowly miss out on, but rather a regular event that we know we’re going to qualify for.”
Ewing, who has been coach for a better part of the last 25 years, isn’t bitter though. He understands what SASCOC are trying to do. “Our Olympic Committee, for better or worse, sets a higher standard than African qualification for us. The challenge is that for a team like SA to get a fifth place finish at World League 3 is very, very difficult. It’s not realistic right now, and the Olympics is robbed of an African representative. We need to raise our competitiveness and our world ranking to make qualification for the Olympics more of a certainty. We need to play more matches do do that, and play in ranking tournaments too. So we’re in a little of a chicken and egg situation.”
Play? That’s a problem in itself because South Africa haven’t been doing that of late. “We need to play more Test matches, as simple as that,” Ewing opines to a question on what it will take to bring the side to the next level.
“In 2016, our senior team played something like 7 matches, and that’s simply not good enough. We need to be averaging 35 a year to be in a position to say players are experienced international competitors.”