The new qualification system for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was given the seal of approval by the IOC Executive Board at its meeting in Turin in mid-February. At the core of the new procedure is a desire to have a greater number of automatic Olympic qualifiers and to provide an opportunity for more teams to be involved at the second stage of the qualifying process.
The Detailed Olympic Qualification Criteria – Beijing 2008 can be viewed on the FIH website.
There will be nine direct qualifiers for each of the men’s and women’s competition (hosts China plus eight from the continental federation championships). This has increased from the one spot given to each of the five continental federations in the past.
The winner of each continental championship will still qualify for Beijing, but the remaining automatic places will be allocated to the continents based on the FIH world ranking list at the completion of the World Cups in 2006.
After each continent has been allocated its quota of automatic qualifying berths, their respective championships will decide which nations fill those positions.
In the second stage of qualifying to determine remaining Olympic berths, the former 12-team qualifying tournaments have been replaced by six tournaments (three men, three women) containing six teams each.
The participants in each tournament will be decided by the same method which will be employed to determine the allocation of quotas for direct qualification.
The format will be identical to the Champions Trophy, with round robin matches followed by a playoff between the top two teams to decide the winner.
Only the winner of these qualifying tournaments will gain a place at the Olympic Games.
Why the changes were made
The changes were requested by FIH and approved by the IOC Executive Board to ensure that the best nations are represented in Beijing.
An equally important feature of the new criteria is that it will provide an opportunity for more nations to be involved in the second qualifying stage if they are not initially successful in their respective continental federation championship.
In previous years, only 12 men’s and women’s teams were afforded a chance to compete at this stage, but with three tournaments containing six teams each, this has risen to 18 each for 2008.
For ‘second tier’ nations, the chance to compete in these tournaments - one step from hockey’s pinnacle event - will provide an incentive to help fuel their improvement and progress through the world rankings.
The Continents likely to benefit
If current world rankings are used as a guide, Oceania would get an additional automatic women’s qualifying place for Beijing. Australia’s current number three world ranking combined with New Zealand’s status as the sixth best team would give Oceania two automatic qualifying places.
Asia is also in line for an additional automatic women’s spot, as is Europe. However this will depend on the final results at the Samsung Hockey World Cup in Madrid and the rankings of each nation when the allocations are made after the completion of the tournament.
On the men’s side, Europe is likely to be the continent that receives the bulk of the additional automatic qualifying spots. With powerhouses Netherlands, Germany and Spain firmly entrenched in the top six in the world, Europe’s men are looking at three automatic spots to be won at their continental championship.
The new criteria will not only benefit teams at the top of the rankings list. Men’s nations lower down the pecking order such as Poland, France, and Ireland will fall safely within the cut-off for a spot in one of the three qualifying tournaments instead of lingering dangerously on the cusp of the previous cut-off.
Similarly on the women’s side, emerging nations Azerbaijan and Italy will now also be just one step from the Olympic Games whereas in the past, it would have been impossible for them to progress much further than a world cup qualifier or the first or second tier of their continental championship.
Nations who might feel the strain Women’s teams such as USA, India, Ireland and Ukraine (women), and Malaysia, Belgium and Egypt (men), are likely to find qualifying mathematically more challenging. With five Olympic berths available between the 12 competing teams at previous qualifying tournaments, these nations had a better statistical chance of snatching a berth than with the new qualifying criteria.
However most teams in this bracket are not regular Olympic competitors and in some cases have not been a realistic chance of qualifying for many years, putting them at no greater disadvantage than the previous qualifying system.
Great Britain (the British Olympic Association has again nominated England as its representative in determining rankings positions and quota allocation) will also be under additional pressure. With England’s men’s and women’s teams falling down the rankings in the past 18 months, they will need to bridge the gap to Europe’s front runners to secure either an automatic spot or a favourable draw in the second qualifying stage.
The positive for European teams is that with their continent generally dominant in the world rankings and favoured to receive multiple men’s and women’s automatic berths, they have a better chance in the first stage of securing an automatic spot.
While the six-team, winner-take-all format for each qualifying tournament will place huge pressure on the top seeded teams, the ability for more nations to be involved in this process will help improve the depth and competitiveness of these teams.
Added importance of the World Cups
This year’s World Cups, aside from being the most important hockey event apart from the Olympic Games, now takes on added importance for those nations ranked 6-12. A move on the rankings in either direction will significantly affect their continent’s chances of getting additional automatic qualifying berths, which at the end of the five continental championships, will provide eight teams direct ticket to Beijing.