The Bolshoy Ice Dome Arena, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics hockey tournament in Sochi, Russia. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)
Much has been made recently about the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Russia, a country that has made some bold proclamations about how it feels about gay rights (long story short: they’re not into it). Everything from a boycott to the physical movement of the Games elsewhere has been called for and while I’m a supporter of human rights, I have to ask the question:
What did you expect? This is the Olympics.
This is a spectacle put on by an organization that pays lip service to politics, but freaks out if someone wears a Nike logo instead of a Reebok crest; the same organization rocked by huge bribery and score-fixing figure skating scandals just two Winter Games ago in Salt Lake City.
Yes, it will be awesome to see best-on-best hockey as Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk defend home ice against Sidney Crosby, Henrik Lundqvist and Patrick Kane. No denying that. But it would also be awesome in the summertime, in the old World Cup format. That way, the NHL schedule wouldn’t be interrupted and thrown into chaos, the tournament can take place during a less compressed amount of time and North American audiences (where the biggest audiences for hockey are) can watch the games at normal hours. And the reek of cultural relativism and corruption doesn’t touch our game. Simply put, the NHL is too good for the Olympics.
This may all be a moot point come 2018, when the non-hockey nation of South Korea hosts the Games and the motivation for the NHL to travel across the globe in the middle of a campaign winnows down to nearly nil, but let’s look forward to that day. There’s no football or baseball in the Olympics and the NFL and MLB haven’t suffered. The NBA doesn’t interrupt its season to send the best players because their Games are in the summer, despite having the exact same season as hockey. And when it comes to women’s hockey, the International Olympic Committee is churlish at best, constantly threatening to pull the event unless a non-North American team wins gold soon. Keep in mind only two non-Chinese women have ever played for gold in table tennis and neither won, yet its viability as a sport is never questioned. And despite the fact there are six different kinds of cross-country skiing at the Winter Games, no man from outside of Europe has ever won a medal there, going back to 1924 (and I’m pretty sure we have flat land with snow on it in North America).
I respect that hockey players want to win Olympic gold, but considering the first time that NHLers were allowed to compete for a medal was 1998, most of them grew up in an era where it wasn’t even an option anyway. And as I said before, the World Cup is just as good, but comes without the baggage.
Hockey is an international game and the moves the NHL has made recently, such as hosting games in Europe and translating its website into different languages, are great. Many in the league have come down pretty definitively on the side of gay rights through the You Can Play Project and while I don’t expect Zdeno Chara to bust out a rainbow flag in defiance when he leaves the ice in Sochi, it is awkward to see the Games in Russia so soon after the flood of support for YCP in the NHL.
I don’t think the IOC has ever had the best interests of hockey in mind and if Sochi is the last time the NHL participates, it’s cool with me.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.
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