Philip Barker ©ITG

Women’s Hockey World Cup organisers have been praised for a tournament in which London’s hockey centre became "’a hot cauldron every day, providing an unforgettable atmosphere for players to shine".

A total of 120,000 spectators poured through the gates during the course of an event which lived up to the tournament slogan‘ "Pure Hockey Gold"’.

In time, the 2018 tournament may well prove a milestone to rival the time when the women’s was finally accepted on the Olympic programme after a struggle which had lasted through much of the 20th century.

Male hockey players first appeared on Olympic schedules at London in 1908, but it’s a fair bet that no-one had thought of inviting the women even though the sport had been organised since the 1890s. That year women took part in archery, tennis and figure skating.

When the Federation Internationale de Hockey (FIH) was founded in 1924, it governed only the men's game. A separate International Federation of Women’s Hockey Associations (IFWHA) was launched shortly afterwards. 

There were attempts to bring the two organisations together in the early 1930s but these came to nothing. It was a state of affairs that would unwittingly store up trouble for the future and would later delay Olympic acceptance. By the early1930s, though, women had already embraced the world of hockey tours and a tournament in conjunction with their international conference held every three years.

In 1935, the debate was not so much whether the sport should be in the Olympics but rather the preferred style of clothing worn. Samples of proposed uniforms were to be sent to Mrs CS Smallman, described in newspapers of the time as "Dress censor" for the All England Hockey Association. 

Many in other countries took their lead from British officials at the time. Bare knees and divided skirts were permitted but Mrs Smallman warned "the divided skirt must look like a divided skirt and not like shorts. It must not be too short or too wide. In future you will not find anything on a hockey field that has not been approved".

There used to be strict rules about what women hockey players could wear, including a decree that
There used to be strict rules about what women hockey players could wear, including a decree that "the divided skirt must look like a divided skirt and not like shorts" ©Wikipedia

After World War Two, the face of international sport changed. London had been awarded the 1948 Olympic Games . Women’s hockey made its bid for a tournament to run alongside the men’s at club grounds in the West London suburbs.

The matter was raised in the first full post war session by International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice-president Avery Brundage.

"In various women’s circles, there is a rather unfavourable view of the Olympic Games," he said. "You must have the ladies with you rather than against.If it is not possible for 1948, then it must be thought of in the future."

His fellow IOC member Sir Noel Curtis Bennett agreed to sound out the London 1948 organisers.

Czechoslovakian IOC member Dr Joseph Gruss proposed that the Executive Committee should consider the case "very attentively and favourably".

But, when the IOC met in Stockholm the following year, although women’s participation in hockey, equestrianism and gymnastics were all discussed, only gymnastics was admitted. Brundage himself later became IOC President, but hockey for women did not enter the Olympics on his watch.

Amazingly those in charge did not seem over concerned.

"It was unanimously agreed that the IFWHA’s conferences tournaments and tours were better suited to women’s hockey than anything offered by the Olympic Games," asserted Hilda Light, President of the Women’s Federation.

Any ambitions for the 1952 Games in Helsinki went by the board when the Organising Committee even announced cuts to team numbers for the men’s competition. Later it was briefly even downgraded it to an optional sport.

A Women's Hockey World Cup has been held since 1974 ©FIH
A Women's Hockey World Cup has been held since 1974 ©FIH

The IOC was an exclusively male organisation at this time and women took part in in athletics, aquatics, equestrianism fencing and gymnastics but the programmes were often limited in comparison to the men.

At the 1970 IOC Session in Amsterdam they announced a joint commission which would it said produce a "basic study". Hockey, cycling, rowing and shooting were all to come under the microscope to determine if they should allow the women in. The man put in charge was Dr Árpád Csanádi, the highly respected IOC member in Hungary.

In 1972, FIH President Rene Frank announced that a women’s hockey tournament would take place at the Montreal Olympics four years later. He may well have been jumping the gun to force the IOC hand.

Munich 1972 Olympic supremo Willi Daume spoke about developments at the 1973 IOC Session in Varna.

"We will not be able to counter the claims of a series of sports to add recognised women’s events," he said. "On what grounds can we accept rowing for women but reject women’s hockey?’’

It helped that both men and women had by now established a World Cup tournament.

In October 1974, at the IOC Session. Csanádi and his commission reported back recommending that hockey for women be given the green light. Despite a request from the FIH, the IOC resolution contained "the stipulation that in 1976 women’s hockey would not be on the programme".

There was reassurance with the caveat that "the request for inclusion of this sport is being considered for 1980".

Even at this time, there were still separate governing bodies for men and women, and this remained a stumbling block for Olympic acceptance.

Zimbabwe received a late call-up to the first women's Olympic hockey tournament at Moscow in 1980 following the withdrawal of several teams in protest of the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan and won the gold medal ©Wikipedia
Zimbabwe received a late call-up to the first women's Olympic hockey tournament at Moscow in 1980 following the withdrawal of several teams in protest of the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan and won the gold medal ©Wikipedia

FIH general secretary Etienne Glichitch authored a pamphlet "seeking a rational organisation for women’s hockey" which was widely circulated.

"’It is in the general interest of hockey in general and women’s hockey in particular that there should be a single International body and a common set of rules," he wrote.

A single body "would make the organisation of competitions between nations far easier in all respects."

Glichitch and veteran Swiss official Albert Demaurex had both appeared before the IOC Executive Committee to plead the case of their sport.

The following year, a council of both organisations was formed to deal with all world and Olympic matters. This was enough for the IOC to proceed, although the FIH did not formally become responsible for the men’s and women’s game until the early 1980s.

The final rubber stamp came at the IOC Session before the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

The sport was to be included for the 1980 Games in Moscow and a six team line up was planned .The host nation would be joined by West Germany, USA, Great Britain , New Zealand and the Netherlands.

But in late December 1979 came a sting in the tail. Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan to prop up the regime there. It prompted United States President Jimmy Carter to demand an Olympic boycott. Many sports were affected but women’s hockey was hit particularly hard.

Of the six nations originally listed to take part only one remained. In Great Britain and New Zealand, the respective hockey associations voted not to go to Moscow.

The success of this year's Women's Hockey World Cup, including the surprise performance of Ireland, who reached the final before being beaten by The Netherlands, has raised the profile of the sport ©Getty Images
The success of this year's Women's Hockey World Cup, including the surprise performance of Ireland, who reached the final before being beaten by The Netherlands, has raised the profile of the sport ©Getty Images

The line-up had been stripped of some of the top hockey nations. In their place came Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland India and the call went out to Zimbabwe to make up the numbers.

"When West German coach Ernst Willig came here in 1978, he told us there would be women’s hockey but we didn’t dream we could go It was the biggest shock and the opening we have dreamed of," player-coach Anthea Stewart, a leading player from the 1960s who came out retirement at 35 to lead the squad, said.

They had not even had not set foot on an artificial surface before the competition.

Although the level of play at the tournament drew criticism, what happened over that week in July 1980 has entered Zimbabwean sports folklore. They beat Poland and drew with Czechoslovakia in their opening matches but the way opened to gold with victory over the Soviet Union and a draw against highly fancied India. In their final match Zimbabwe beat Austria 4-1 to make sure of the title.

"We never expected this," 23-year-old Patricia Davies, one of four members of one Harare based club in the team, said. "We really got a shock with the tough game they play here, but I think we played the best hockey in the tournament."

"Heartfelt congratulations on their magnificent achievement," came the message from the Zimbabwean leader, one Robert Mugabe.

There was a more tangible reward from the Minister for Sport. Each player was given an ox.

It was a rare success for Zimbabwe on the Olympic stage. Not until swimmer Kirsty Coventry at Athens in 2004 did they strike gold again.

It was perhaps ironic that the 2018 World Cup winners had been one of the nations to withdraw from that original Olympic tournament. The Dutch women have been nigh on unstoppable in recent World Cups and proved so in London last week.

Ireland’s marvellously unexpected run to the final might yet have an even greater impact. Organisers claimed "their battling performances amd never say die attitude inspired fans across the world".

If that is the case, then 2018 may well prove to be every bit as much "game changer", and could do for women’s hockey what the FIFA 2015 World Cup and 2017 Cricket world Cup have done in raising the profile of their respective sports.