No Olympics For U.S. Men's Field Hockey Team

Men's field hockey is an Olympic sport, but you wouldn't know it judging from the U.S. team's lack of participation. The U.S. national team chose not to take part in last week's Olympic qualifying tournament in India.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn, now, to our Olympic countdown in a sport that's fast and exciting, but hard for Americans to compete in. So hard, that the U.S. withdrew recently from the Olympic qualifiers for men's field hockey.

NPR's Mike Pesca reports that was a decision that doesn't sit well with the athletes on America's national team.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: If an event can be said to captivate the attention of the field hockey-loving public, last week's Olympics qualifying tournament held in India did just that. The best match of the week long affair pitted the Poles against the Indians

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Going to cross and it's a goal. And it's India two, Poland two. And now it's Poland who are back in the playoff match.

PESCA: And while the game was close, the home team pulled it out and went on to win the tournament and a spot in London. Field hockey is one of the few athletic bright spots in India.

In contrast to the historically dominant Indian squad, stands the U.S. Men's National Field Hockey Team, whose unofficial motto may well be: Yes, There Is A U.S. Men's National Field Hockey Team. Though there wasn't one at Olympic qualifiers in New Delhi. Though team U.S.A. had earned a place in the field, the national federation chose not to send its team.

Backing out of a major international tournament flew in the face what team member Patrick Cota believes to be the Olympic ideal

PATRICK COTA: To try, even if you fail, you've at least tried. And we didn't even have the opportunity to do that.

PESCA: Cota is the most veteran field hockey player in men's team history. When his team finished fifth in the Pan Am Games, it was always his understanding that they would continue on to India. But field hockey players aren't professionals. They aren't even decently funded amateurs. Team members all have day jobs, some in the world of hockey, like Cota who is an assistant coach with the Stanford women's team, but another is a commodities trader and one is a doctor. Too many players couldn't make the trip, and the national team was hard pressed to fill its roster.

Cota realizes all that, but says the U.S.A, ranked 24 out of the 74 countries with national teams, still could have pulled off some surprises.

COTA: Could we have gone and lost every game? Yeah, absolutely, it's a reality. But could we have been competitive, even with a smaller group of players, and development players for youth in the Americas - for the U.S. team? Yeah, I think we could have and we could have had a good showing.

PESCA: Cota says financial considerations were clearly at play, an assertion refuted by Chris Clements, Team USA's new coach. Clements signed off on the calculation that it was infinitely more likely that the U.S. would have suffered crushing losses than miracle wins.

CHRIS CLEMENTS: We could have done well. But also, we could have been blown out a little but as well.

PESCA: The effect of those blowouts could have set the U.S. program back; many of the 100 or so players in the national team pool might question the worth of playing at all. Coach Clements points to the thrashing suffered by Singapore, the team that wound up taking place of the United States'.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Fifteen goals to one is surely enough for anyone to suffer.

PESCA: Clements, the new coach who hasn't yet had a chance to actually coach, says he understands Cota's frustration as a competitor. Cota, the veteran who wants nothing more than U.S. success, says he gets that brutal defeats could have stymied the program's growth. Both men agree that the key to future success is to get sticks in the hands of young players - young male players, in order to expand the talent pool and put Team U.S.A. in the position to at least compete for Olympic glory.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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