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Will Indian hockey qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics? (3/10/2006)
--K. Arumugam
This question might look out of context in view of India hockey’s focus on next week Commonwealth Games, but it attains significance as the world body FIH has recently changed the Qualifying criteria for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

The changes, approved by the International Olympic Committee during the Turin Winter Games last fortnight, are drastic in nature, favour European Nations, and might reduce the representation level of Asians, even jeopardizing Indian chances, only country in the world to have participated in the all Olympic hockey since 1928.

On the face of it the changes look nothing drastic as the traditional two-way Olympic entry -- direct and through qualification tournaments -- is in essence retained. But what should cause alarm is increasing the direct qualification quota to nine instead of six and holding of three specific tournaments (each six teams) to select the rest three. Hitherto, 12 teams took part in the only Qualifying tournament; top six or seven finishers joined the Five Continental champions and the hosts for the Olympics.

As per the new scheme, in the Stage I of Olympic qualification, five continental Champions, the host and three nations based on the FIH World Ranking at the completion of this year World Cup will make up the automatic quota. No hitch in the Continental Champions getting the go ahead, but deciding three spots on the basis of dubious and nebulous World Ranking System, is.

The FIH Ranking System, introduced in the third quarter of 2003, gives weightage to only the FIH and Continental Federation tournaments, which are hardly one third of international matches being played on the world stage. The case of Indian women proves the folly. All teams that India defeated at the last Commonwealth Games, save Malaysia, are ranked above it because FIH does not consider Commonwealth Games (Test Series, invitation tournaments) for ranking purposes.

Now look at the emerging scenario. Indian men will be through to Beijing if they win the Doha Asian Games or finish within top six at September World Cup. If not, will have to win one of the proposed Six-Nation Qualifiers. Considering the Asian Games is always a four-way horse between India, Pakistan, South Korea and Malaysia – Pakistan did not win a medal at the last Asian Games – the three of them have to finish top six at the World Cup or win the zonal Qualifier. A tall order indeed as Malaysia and India finished eighth and tenth respectively at the last World Cup, while Pakistan and Korea, though fourth and fifth, have not figured in the semis of any tournaments since then.

India’s performance in the past 12-Nation Olympic Qualifiers have been anything but encouraging. In 1991 at Auckland, India lost to Malaysia, drew France and counted on other results for its Barcelona Olympics trip. If this was the case when six spots out of 12 were up for grab, think of winning a tournament now? And, who knows the field will not have the likes of Korea or Pakistan.

If one looks at the likely beneficiaries of the new system, a fair picture emerges – Euro-Oceania. When in 2003 the ranking system was introduced, first casualty was India (women). The Asia Cup, Afro-Asian Games and Commonwealth Champions was not worth a place for 2004 Olympic Qualifier, where six European teams fought in a field of ten to grab five Olympic spots!

Similar situation is likely to emerge for Indian men now. Top guns Netherlands, Spain, Germany are rock sure to get necessary ranking in the World Cup which leaves enough space for European minnows like England, France, Belgium to stake claim for the direct quota on the basis of their ranking in the European Nations Cup, which is a biannual affair unlike Asian Games, Pan American Games or All African Games (once in four years). The four Asians figuring in the Olympics, as happened at 2000 Sydney, looks a distant dream as of now.

FIH’s argues the three Qualification tournaments of each six teams will give chance to 18 teams to aim for the Olympics, instead of 12 in the past. If enlarging the participation is the sole objective, it should be applied uniformly for all FIH tournaments. Unlike Olympics, enlarging World Cup field was at the hands of FIH, but paradoxically, it reduced the 2006 World Cup field to 12 instead of 16!

The focus for Indian hockey should now be winning World Cup or Asian Games, instead of changing coaches and players, without bothering about results.

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