Explained: Why Hockey 5s could be the future of the sport at Olympics

Mihir Vasavda
Hockey 5s, a fledgling format that is rapidly spreading its wings, has evoked cynicism and thrill in equal measure.

For some, it's a smarter, simpler version of the sport. For quite a few, it is an upstart that will ultimately overtake – or take over, depending on which side of the debate you are on – the traditional format. Hockey 5s, a fledgling format that is rapidly spreading its wings, has evoked cynicism and thrill in equal measure. But when the International Hockey Federation (FIH) announced on Monday that a Hockey 5s World Cup will be launched in 2023, there was more scepticism than excitement over their intentions.

Eye on the Games

What were once whispers have turned into roars that the shorter version of the sport will replace the traditional 11-a-side game at the Olympics, with many even suggesting the change could take place as soon as the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

The FIH has denied any such move. “There is no plan at all to have 11-a-side hockey cease to exist at the Olympics,” a spokesperson told The Indian Express. “We have seen how other sports are successfully running two formats.”

Another possibility, of both formats taking place simultaneously at the Games, has been put forth as well, like volleyball and beach volleyball. But at a time when the International Olympic Committee is looking to reduce the number of events, this looks like a remote possibility.

No ‘D’, use of sideboards

Hockey's complicated, and constantly changing, rules have been one of the biggest deterrents in terms of viewership. The 5s version, played over three 10-minute periods, cuts the complexity.

In many ways, it mirrors ice hockey. As the name suggests, five players are allowed in the starting line-up and four on the bench. Like the 11-a-side version, rolling substitutions are allowed.

Unlike the traditional format, however, there is no 'D', which means a goal can be scored from anywhere on the 'court', which is half the size of a normal hockey pitch.

The boundary boards can be used to rebound the ball, giving the players an option to use the speed and angles generated from it in attacking moves. The ball is out of play only when it completely passes over the boundary board on the sideline or backline. That means, more often than not, the game stops only when a player gets injured.

New destinations

The world body hopes that like Rugby 7s or Twenty20 cricket, Hockey 5s will attract newer countries to the sport. The format was tried at the last two Youth Olympics and has thrown up a few surprising results – Zambia, for instance, stunned Germany 8-1 at the Nanjing Games and teams like Austria and Kenya gave a good account of themselves in Buenos Aires last year.

“The FIH Hockey 5s World Cup is created first and foremost to promote hockey and to have a high-level FIH competition for Hockey 5s, therefore giving many National Associations a chance to have a competitive Hockey 5s team than an 11-a-side one,” the FIH said.

India’s position

India has been slow to warm up to the concept and did not compete at the 2014 Youth Olympics. In 2018, however, the team led by Vivek Sagar Prasad, now an established player in the senior 11-a-side team, won the silver medal after losing to Malaysia in the final.

The FIH has said continental 5s championship will act as qualifiers for the World Cup, which will be a 16-team affair. Hockey India does not have a dedicated 5s programme yet, although they have been conducting national championships for a couple of years.

It is learnt that there will be separate camps for 5s and 11-a-side versions of the games going forward. No timeline, however, has been set so far for that.

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