Ice hockey’s governing body Tuesday finally put to rest lingering questions about whether China’s woeful team would be allowed to play in the Olympic men’s hockey tournament, confirming less than two months before the Winter Games’ scheduled start that the team would indeed compete in Beijing.
The International Ice Hockey Federation said in a statement Tuesday that its leadership, during a two-day meeting in Zurich, “confirmed that it would uphold the decision” from several years ago to include the Chinese team in the Olympic competition. The verdict, after months of skepticism about the team’s viability and questions from the ice hockey federation’s head about the value of having it in the Olympic field, allows China to sidestep a blow to its pride, but will have little effect on the chase for medals in Beijing.
The Chinese team, which is ranked 32nd in the world, will meet Canada, Germany and the United States in group play, making it exceedingly unlikely that it will advance. But host countries regularly enjoy the privilege of participating in every sport, and China’s potential exclusion from one of the most popular events of the Winter Games had threatened to blemish the athletic résumé that the country has been painstakingly building.
Although China has transformed itself into a power at the Summer Games – it finished second in the medal count at the Tokyo Olympics this year – its proficiency in winter team sports is less sterling. And whatever limited ambitions China might have had in men’s hockey dimmed in September when the NHL said it would allow its players to participate in Beijing, clearing the way for China’s group-stage opponents to stock their rosters with much of the world’s finest talent.
Tuesday’s announcement also extinguished any remaining prospects that Norway, ranked No. 11 in the world, would enter the tournament as China’s replacement.
It might also, at last, end months of waffling by hockey leaders, who said in November that China would compete in the Olympics – and then almost immediately signalled the team’s standing was still tenuous.
Luc Tardif, the ice hockey governing body’s new president, had repeatedly voiced concerns about whether China would be able to keep pace with its opponents in Beijing.
“Watching a team being beaten, 15-0, is not good for anyone, not for China or for ice hockey,” Tardif told Agence France-Presse in September.
But Tardif appeared to back off in November, releasing a statement that said, “To be clear, the IIHF is not going to remove the Chinese team from the Olympic Games.” At the time, Tardif said the federation would work alongside Chinese officials as “they work toward preparing their team.”
He also said “a joint effort to evaluate the status of the team’s preparations” would take place during two games of Kunlun Red Star, a Chinese team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League stocked with many of the players who were expected to compete for China at the Games.
Kunlun Red Star lost the first game, 5-4, in overtime and then dropped the second, 4-1. By then, Tardif had started reviving worries about the Chinese team’s prospects.
The federation did not detail how or why it reached its conclusion this week that China would be allowed to compete, saying little more than that officials had “discussed the status of the Chinese men’s ice hockey team.”
Much of China’s trouble can be traced to its strict rules on dual nationality, which other countries use to bolster their teams in hockey and other sports. China’s refusal to recognize dual citizenship and its requirements for naturalized athletes born abroad to compete under its flag have long limited its ability to construct rosters.
China’s women’s hockey team also remains on course to compete in the Beijing Games. That team is ranked 20th in the world.