Opinion

Magic moment in women's hockey masks uncomfortable truth

The come from behind victory of the women's hockey team on Thursday was a proud Canadian moment. The gold medal win, after being down 2-0 late in the third period, was a very exciting time for Canadians. It was one of the highlights of the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia that have generally been a triumph for Canadian athletes.

There have also been some other fine moments — Canadian cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth helping Russian skier Anton Gafarov, who broke his ski, and speed skater Gilmore Junio  giving up his place in the 1000 metre race, to allow Denny Morrison to compete and win a silver medal.

One of the persistent criticisms of women's ice hockey in the Olympics is that there are really only two good teams, competition after competition — Canada and the United States. It's a legitimate point, but it leads to a more important question. Why?

To a lesser degree, the same point can be raised about women's soccer in the Summer Olympics, although there are more than two truly competitive teams. But there aren't too many.

I got a hint at why this might be the case when attending the North American playoffs for women's soccer berths in the London Summer Olympics, which were held at B.C. Place in January, 2012. The American and Canadian teams were dominant — other teams, including Mexico, a populous nation which is soccer-mad, were very weak and hardly belonged on the same pitch.

Another clue for me came during a visit to Sierra Leone and Ghana in West Africa at the end of last year. While soccer is far and away the most dominant sport in both countries, and indeed is the most universal topic of conversation, I didn't see a single girl playing the game. We observed many games — all involved boys and young men.

In the case of hockey, it's obvious that most countries don't even play the game. In Africa, ice and snow are unknowns. In many other parts of the world, it's the same story. And even in countries with cold climates, hockey isn't universal — and where it is played, it usually involves boys.

But a much more important factor is the role of girls and women in society in many parts of the world. Many of them never get the opportunity to take part in sports at all. Many are expected to do a great deal of housework, laundry, cooking and taking care of younger siblings, at very young ages themselves.

Shortly after they reach puberty, there is often enormous pressure placed on them — by society, in some cases by their families and in almost all cases by men — to have sex and/or get married and have children. Far too many young girls are mothers by the age of 15.

Girls don't get the chance to be girls for very long in many parts of the world. They most certainly don't get the chance to play games like hockey and soccer into their teens and 20s. It's not that they don't want to play — look at how the interest in women's hockey has grown in Canada and the United States, where girls who express an interest in playing usually will get the chance to do so.

Girls' soccer is very widely-played in both Canada and the U.S., and that's as it should be. Girls deserve the chance to take part in athletics and learn all the valuable lessons that come with taking part in team sports.

Hopefully some day, there will be many more teams that will challenge the Canadian and American dominance in women's ice hockey. But for that to happen, there needs to be a major change of attitude about the role of girls and women in many parts of the world.

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