Women’s Olympic hockey is more competitive, but patience is still required

Women’s hockey games at the Sochi Olympics show progress in competitive parity. But the sport still needs time to evolve – and the International Olympic Committee needs to give it room to grow.

It’s been only four years since former International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge’s put women’s hockey on notice to increase its competitive parity. But in the games we’ve seen thus far at the current Sochi Winter Games, there’s evidence progress is being made – and that more patience is needed.

On the negative side, the women’s Swiss team was outscored 14-0 in its first two games against the co-favorite Canadian and American squads. But in notable positives, the Finnish team gave Canada a strong test before falling 3-0; and an upstart team from Japan scored its first Olympic goal in 16 years and pushed the Russians to a 1-1 tie late in the third period today before the hosts scored a shorthanded goal and won 2-1. It’s not a giant leap forward to across-the-board parity, but it’s a glimpse of where the sport can grow.

Of course, there’s still a strong likelihood the U.S. and Canada meet in the gold medal final. If and when that happens, there may be people who call out for the IOC to follow through on Rogge’s tough words and take a hard look at removing women’s hockey as an Olympic sport. And if it did, that would be a massive mistake – one that ignores the socioeconomic realities of building this particular women’s sport.
In many nations, redefining gender roles and demanding equality in sport are battles women have to face before they can worry about constructing an elite hockey program. It’s unfair to expect sweeping change to the landscape of those issues in only four years.

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Are there going to be more blowout international hockey games played by women? Absolutely. Will there be more blowout international games played by men? Also absolutely. But lopsided losses and familiar finalists are no reason to pull the plug on the only major stage these female athletes get and dispose of their best recruiting tool to continue laying the foundation for future generations of women who love to play the game.

Nobody in the women’s game would tell you there’s parity at the Olympic level. But they will tell you how much the sport has grown in less than two decades. They will describe how they’ve built a professional women’s league in Canada that provides a year-round place for females to play. And they will point to places like Sweden and Finland as examples of success beyond North American borders.

If that doesn’t meet the Olympic ideal of resolute focus and determination to excel in the face of great challenge, I don’t know what does. Women’s hockey isn’t perfect, but it’s damn sure undeserving of disrespect by impatient myopic types who want to use the condition of the trees they can see to burn down the forest they can’t.