Recently, I was reading a few articles that were posted on TSN.ca about women’s hockey, and the lack of competition that exists within this sport. As some may know, the sport is dominated by two countries, Canada and the USA. Together they have won every World Championship since they began holding the world championships in 1990. At the recent World Hockey Summit, the basic debate surrounding women’s hockey is how to increase the competitiveness of women’s hockey in more countries around the world so the same two teams are not the only ones winning major championships and Olympic Games.
Anyways, this got me thinking about Short Track. Now obviously, Short track is not dominated by only two countries as women’s hockey is, right? Well as much as I’d like to say it isn’t, if you look at some numbers from past Olympics its easy to see that the sport is predominantly dominated by two countries on the men’s side, South Korea and Canada, and two countries on the women’s side, China and South Korea. Of the 120 medals that have been handed out at the Olympics (both genders) since Short Track became an Olympic event, Korea has won 37 or 31%, Canada has won 25 or 21% and China has won 24 or 21%. Add that up and you have three countries winning 72% of Olympic medals. The rest of the medals are scattered across a number of countries with a major (18 or 15%) going to the USA.
So these numbers beg the question, does short track have a similar problem to that of women’s hockey where a small number of countries dominate the podiums? My simple answer is no. Why? Well there are several reasons.
First of all, our sport has three (and more recently four) “superpowers”. These of course being South Korea, Canada and China, with the USA following closely behind and quickly catching up. Compare this to women’s hockey, which only has two “superpowers”.
Secondly, the sport is still quite young as Olympic sports go (although the same could be argued for women’s hockey as it joined the Olympics in 1998) and continues to grow, especially in Europe, a continent that is traditionally a winter sports mecca. Not surprisingly, those countries that have a history of short track since the beginning are strongest. But the sport continues to grow. On the world cup circuit we increasingly see skaters from non-traditional short track countries getting into A- finals and threatening podiums. We have also witnessed coaches from traditional short track powers move to countries with newer short track programs and bring the level of those countries skaters up to a higher level. Primarily we have seen this with South Korean coaches such as Jae-Su Chun who is coaching the American team, as well as his brother Kevin recently joined the Great Britain team and others who coach in France and at various clubs across the USA. Coaches from Canada and China have also ventured overseas to spread their knowledge. Eric Bedard spent the last two seasons as the head coach of the German team and Li Yan coached in the US before heading back to China. Australian and Polish teams have also employed Chinese coaches at one time or another. This spread of knowledge across borders can only help the sport as it brings the level of less skilled skaters up and forces those at the top to continue to innovate if they wish to continue winning. Better results from non-traditional short track countries also increases interest in the sport, theoretically increasing growth as well.
Thirdly, Short Track is not over-shadowed by a bigger, more popular sibling, as is the case with women’s hockey. The NHL and men’s professional leagues are big business in North America and Europe and command a huge portion of attention away from the women’s game. Some might argue that short track may have in fact experience this syndrome from Long Track, but the reality is that Short and Long Track skating share very little other than two skates and some ice, whereas men’s and women’s hockey are simply separated by gender. There are also no professional leagues in speed skating, with the exception of the Netherlands, which has several professional Long Track teams. Despite this, neither short or long track receive lopsided media attention when compared to the other, as in men’s vs. women’s hockey, which puts the two on even ground for growth in interest and exposure, even if both sport are starting out with levels of exposure that are very low compared to mainstream sports (exception again being Long Track in the Netherlands.)
So that’s my take. Obviously my analysis is a little narrow, as it does not account for the fact that hockey is a team sport, while short track is not. There are probably several other problems with this analysis, but I think overall, it is fair to say that short track is not experiencing the problems that women’s hockey is, at least not to the same extent.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave a comment and add to the discussion or let me know what you think!