If the women of GB hockey win gold tonight it will be the greatest team sport victory in the history of Britain at the Olympics. Cue a howling wind-tunnel’s-worth of outrage from cycling and rowing fans. So let’s be clear: traditional team sports. A sport that you can’t do on your own. Sport we played on the school field in all shades of disgruntlement. Sport like cricket, football, rugby – that lot – where the melding of individuals into a super-dynamic group (or if you’re Arsenal’s defence – not) is fundamental to the process.
GB women’s hockey have been melding for some time. Captain Kate Richardson-Walsh has been leading the troops for a record 13 years. That in itself is extraordinary. So is the fact they came into the Olympic tournament ranked seventh and now they have reached the final. Unstoppably and betraying barely a flicker of defensive frailty nor attacking restraint. They look like the ultimate unit. If it didn’t carry associations with ridiculous men in black leather (see BBC iPlayer) you’d cite The Musketeers propaganda: All For One and One For All.
They even absorbed the late entry of the monolithic Crista Cullen into the set-up, their former player summoned out of Africa to take penalty corners and get whacked in the head, harrying the physio to stitch her up quickly in the semi-final so that she could cause more mayhem to the Kiwis in the semi-final. A lesser team would have resented the late-comer. A lesser woman would have spurned the opportunity.
Now they face the second-toughest opposition out there: the Netherlands. Reigning world and Olympic champions. But the GB team have already overcome the toughest of all – institutionalised doubt that throwing money at teams is worthwhile.
The significance of a win tonight is huge. Much has been said of UK Sport’s “ruthless” funding policy. Count the medals. Fine – up to a point. But team sports have fared – unfairly – less well. Team sport = one gold and a much, much harder process to win. It takes years to build to fruition. UK Sport needs a return on investment and prefers a Get Metallic Quick policy. Undoubtedly team sports have suffered. Volleyball came and went at London 2012. Football – outrageously – came and went at London 2012.
Even after the sensational performance and public embracing of the England women’s team at the 2014 World Cup, the FA in their wimp-hood could not get their act together to produce a GB team for Rio. They should have skittled the opposition from other home countries who feared pitiful losses of kudos more than they valued their own sport’s advancement. UK Sport should have helped them. Fifa, with more arrests among their so-called guv’nors than a mafia clan, were in no position to resist cogent argument.
That’s why this surge of interest in a pure team sport like hockey will be so important. It will resonate in the future and maybe knock heads towards enlightenment. We’ve surely under-estimated and underfunded team sport and been rewarded with under-performance.
Tonight, at 9pm, that could start to change. The cocoa and second-splosh-of-sauvignon brigades will unite on sofas and watch a sport that has rarely progressed beyond the periphery of their vision. They’ve probably never heard of Alex Danson nor Lily Owsley nor Helen Richardson-Walsh. Nor, come to that, have many newspapers who have frequently – even this week – mixed up Helen with her wife, Kate, because the athletes hyphenated their surnames when they married.
Whatever transpires, guts (hopefully not literally, but you never know) and togetherness will be apparent. It is the most beautiful side-effect of team sport that bonds happen. Inevitably. Mutual suffering in gyms, on training pitches, in battle on Astroturf, tends to bind humans irreparably. It happens at every level. It happened with a group of East End kids, coached by the GB hockey teams, before London 2012 and the transformation of their tough, young lives has been little short of wondrous.
“We help each other,” said 17-year-old Vinnie, one of the original members of the club, still – precariously – in business. “Whatever’s going on outside in your life, this is a place where you can be happy.”
Time after time in Rio, the most touching scenes involve athletes rushing into the arms of their family to celebrate or commiserate after victory or defeat. A team can take the place of that family when your own is fractured. At school and grassroots level: how can that not be a wonderful thing? Elite sports can provide the role models. Maybe the GB women’s hockey team – in all their resolute, tightly-bound, ego-buttoned sisterhood – will light the way.
Great Britain face the Netherlands in the Olympic hockey final at nine o’clock tonight UK time
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Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles