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What’s a silver medal worth?

Thursday, 9th August, 2018 9:16am

I’ve been trying to assess the true impact of the World Cup silver medal won by the Irish women’s hockey team. It’s not easy.

It’s the greatest performance by any Irish team in a field sport ever. But what is the context? How big is hockey as a sport globally? Is it a minority sport as it is perceived to be here?

Firstly, it was a great Irish sport story. The women broke new ground. They finished second in a World Cup (WC), setting a new standard for Irish field sports. They went into the WC with a world ranking of 16, and this week rose to eighth.

Ireland beat two teams in the top ten and the number 11 in the world. It was fantastic to see an Irish team have fun under pressure and perform so well. They weren’t the best team, they didn’t have the best players, they certainly didn’t have the most funding, but they maximised their potential and performed brilliantly.

In the semi-finals and final, they began the games on the front foot, creating chances. No fear. It was great to see that.

In Ireland, men’s hockey is a minority sport. The vast majority of the players are from the major cities in Ireland, with only one club each in Galway and Waterford.

But women’s hockey is not so unusual. There are schools and clubs who play it all over the country. It is one of the most popular women’s sports. There are clubs from Clonmel to Clonakilty. Globally, hockey is a very popular sport. It’s far more popular than rugby, say, which is really popular only in a handful of major countries and a number of small islands in the South Pacific.

Hockey’s top 20 in the world features Germany, England, Australia, India, Korea, China, USA and Japan. South Africa and Chile are there too. The game is extremely popular in Europe, Asia and South and Central America. It is not so popular in Africa, although Egypt boasts good teams. The Middle East, too, barely registers, but womens’ sports aren’t much of a priority there, are they?

Women’s football is more popular than hockey, but football is the unassailable leader among men and women.

One sports crowdfunding website puts hockey at third in the world based in the number of people who play for clubs in a sport, but it didn’t separate sports into male and female participation. It’s very difficult to accurately assess participation numbers globally, but amongst field hockey is quite likely to be in the top two or three most widely participated sports in the world for women. So this was no triumph in a minority sport.

Hopefully the greatest dividend of this triumph will be increased participation among girls in all sports. The team were superb ambassadors for their sport and for Ireland.

A final word on some of the players, particularly from Munster, who narrowly failed to make the squad. Some of them were crucial to WC qualification, and all of them helped to drive competition and improve the team. The likes of Cliodhna Sargent, who has 209 caps, Naomi Carroll, Rebecca Barry and Emma Buckley all deserve to be recognised for their role in this triumph too.

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