From the colorful and vibrant Rio Olympic Games to the exhilarating performance by Argentina men as they were crowned Olympic champions, to the steadfast and ultra responsible roles undertaken by Olympic officials, the Pan American nations have always played a starring role in the Olympic field hockey competition.
With the Tokyo Olympics now hopefully taking place this time next year – delayed for 12 months because of the Covid-19 pandemic – it seemed an apposite moment to look back at previous Olympic Games through the eyes of three members of the PAHF hockey community.
Willard P Harris, from Trinidad and Tobago, is an experienced administrator: currently he is the chairperson of the PAHF Competitions Committee and of the Education Panel.
In 2008, Harris was selected to be a Technical Officer at the Beijing Olympics. He was just the second technical officer from Trinidad and Tobago to be appointed to an Olympic Games, which made the moment even sweeter.
“I was surprised initially,’ says Harris. ‘And delighted of course. My family were elated. Apart from the appointment itself, visiting China was a major thing for them. My wife and sister-in-law immediately made plans to travel as well and, through a colleague from another island, they were able to make the necessary bookings. I had my own little fan club.”
Harris describes the “electrifying” atmosphere at the Olympic Games as one of the stand-out memories from Beijing, along with the lifelong friends he made as the third team dug in and worked their competent magic to ensure the competition ran smoothly.
While technical officials might not have the physical preparations that the players and umpires go through, they still have their own training. For Harris this meant reading up on the technical duties required at an Olympic Games. He also had several conversations with the current PAHF President Alberto Coco Budeisky, for who this was a second Olympic Games experience.
During the competition itself, pressure builds for everyone. For Harris, Technical Officer duties involved engaging with top level administrators and officials to ensure all the necessary information was gathered for and during the match. Each official played a crucial role in ensuring that the match progressed smoothly. Looking back, Harris says it was important to just settle into the role quickly and believe in your own capabilities to do the task at hand.
“There were some challenges, particularly around the disciplinary process, but we were able to bond as a group of officials. It also helped that my wife was in Beijing, although not at our hotel. It helped to be able to chat to her”.
“I learnt so much, technically and socially. I also developed life-long relationships. From a PAHF perspective, I have been able to share the knowledge and experience to help others prepare to officiate at World level hockey events.”
Eight years later, Harris was part of the Rio 2016 Officials team as a member of the Jury of Appeal and Chair of the then Appointments Committee.
Also part of the umpiring team in Rio was USA umpire Amy Baxter, (née Hassick), about to blow the whistle at her second Olympic Games. For Baxter however, her standout Olympic memory had been made four years earlier in the stadium at the 2012 London Olympics.
“To be honest I don't even remember the match or who they played, but the pride and support of the Great Britain supporters was astonishing. The noise made by the supporters was deafening. The stadium music pumping "London Calling' as we walked out for the team anthems was purely electric. I remember grinning ear to ear, and I believe [Great Britain’s] Helen Richardson was standing to my left. As we ran out, she leaned over and said, 'this is pretty amazing, isn't it?'. All I could do was nod my head. The bass of the music, the cheers from the crowd just left a permanent mark in my hockey memory.”
A similar experience took place in Rio 2016 when Argentina women took on Australia. Baxter recalls that it was a night-time game and, an hour before the game, the stadium was packed with Las Leonas fans, singing, chanting, banging and “cazooing".
In both London and Rio, Baxter took the opportunity to watch some other sports. She saw her first ever women’s rugby match in Rio and in London she was one of a 70,000-strong crowd watching the USA women’s football team.
Baxter herself had held aspirations to be a national team player but was cut from the squad six months before the 1996 Atlanta Games. Umpiring was her way back onto the national stage and she grabbed the opportunity fully.
She recalls that the email informing her that she had been selected to umpire at the 2012 Games pinged into her mail box at 2am. “I sat straight up, read it five times and shook my now husband awake. I just yelled at him that I was going to London. I'm a pretty private person so I actually kept the news to myself until the list became public.”
Leading into both Games, Baxter says the preparation was intense. “There was this enormous pressure not to let ourselves down. For both Games, I just worked so that I was as fit mentally and physically as I could be, however for Rio I had to take extra care of my fitness because I was suffering a bad back (spondylolisthesis).”
No-one who has participated in an Olympic Games can separate that time into a bubble. The impact of being involved in something so magnificent inevitably touches other aspects of everyday life. And so it is for Baxter: “There is the whole experience of travelling widely. Then there is the fact you spend a lot of time on your own: it’s how you deal with that. There is the mental pressure you put on yourself to do the game justice, let alone the pressure from the fans, athletes, coaches, people watching the game on TV and social media.”
Baxter says the experiences have helped her learn how to control her reaction to pressure in all walks of life. “I now know I can only control so much. I’ve certainly learned to ‘breath’. My mantra is ‘white cloud in, grey cloud out’. And I’ve learned to laugh at myself and not take things so personally.”
Baxter has this advice for the umpires preparing themselves for the challenge of the Tokyo Olympic Games: “Soak it in. Enjoy it all. Your bus trips to the venues, the walk to the stadium, your colleagues, your flat mates, the environment, the city, the people, the fans, every sport.
“Prepare for each game. No one will ever be the same. Prepare before the match with your partner. I always like to do it away from the venue. My personal, mental needs, dressing, thinking, my own 'groove' was paramount in my preparation. Being yourself is crucial too. Don't lose yourself or your personality. And communication is key, especially with your umpire colleague. You'll have umpires you have worked with many times and know their rhythm, timing, plan of action, and then you'll have those you haven't worked with as much. A good solid pre-game discussion is well worth the time for yourself, your partner and the players.”
And the final message from this umpire sums up her generous and unassuming attitude: “I like to walk away from a game knowing that I did the best that I could for it and the players. No one got injured, no major injustices happened, and the right team won. All around great sportsmanship from both teams, and no one notices the umpires.”
Our third interviewee, Canada’s Mark Pearson, is a veteran of Beijing and Rio. Canada missed out on qualification for the London 2012 Games, so the midfielder had a long wait between his first and second Olympic experiences.
The fact there was such a long wait meant that the walk out onto the pitch for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games was an incredibly special moment for Pearson and his team mates.
“The two Olympic Games presented hugely different experiences for me. At the 2008 Games I was a wide-eyed youngster who was a little over-awed by the Games experience. I was less of an impact player on the field too and was more of a role player looking to contribute wherever possible up front.
“By the time the 2016 Rio Games had rolled around I was a much more experienced player, comfortable in my own skin on and off the field and was much better equipped to really absorb and appreciate the Games experience.”
It was one of his teammates who broke the news that he would be on the flight to Beijing. Pearson recalls: “I was sitting at the kitchen table at my mom’s house and one of my teammates called me as he had seen the email before I had a chance to. It was very emotional for me as I was on pins and needles for weeks leading into the decision. I was a youngster at the time and certainly not feeling like I was a 'guarantee' to make the team.”
As soon as he received the news, Pearson’s family kicked into action to book flights and accommodation. He says with a smile: “There was the momentary panic from my family as they tried to figure out how they were going to be able to get over to China and find a place to stay for a reasonable price.”
Fast forward 12 years and Mark Pearson stands on the brink of another Olympic campaign. With 274 caps to his name, Pearson now has the experience of two World Cups, a host of other top-level international events and time spent playing in the German league. He has also fought back from a career-threatening Achilles injury. He is far removed from the nervous youngster who was waiting to hear whether he was selected for Beijing. However, there is little doubt how much selection for Tokyo 2021 would mean.
“It would be an incredible honor for me and the perfect cap off to my career,’ he says, “and especially satisfying after working so hard to get myself back healthy after my Achilles tendon rupture.”
The 33-year-old has matured into a senior statesman and ambassador for the Canadian team and as such he has spoken out on two issues that have hit the headlines recently.
In the first of these, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) took an early stance on pulling out of the Games as the Covid-19 pandemic began to strike across the globe. COC attracted some criticism for this move, but Pearson believes it was the right decision.
“I think it was unfair of the IOC to keep asking athletes to risk their own health and the health of those around them to continue trying to prepare for sport during a global pandemic,” he says. “It was also important to consider that while all the hockey teams had already qualified for the games there was still 50 per cent of athletes who had not had a chance to secure qualification at that point. There was no chance that all those events were going to be organized fairly and safely prior to the Olympic Games. It was the right decision and I'm happy the COC took a stance.”
On the second issue, which has seen the potential softening of the IOC’s stance on political protest at an Olympic Games (“Rule 50”), Pearson says he is still undecided where his feelings lie on the matter. On the one hand, he is a firm advocate for freedom of expression, but he also believes that politics should not impinge on sport.
“I've thought long and hard around this issue and was recently on an athlete conference call with a number of Canadian athletes where we discussed the pros / cons and dove into the historical context of Rule 50 itself.
“I am still a little split on the issue and while I am most certainly in favor of preserving freedom of expression for athletes, I think that sport itself, especially the Field of Play, should at least attempt to remain an apolitical sanctuary.
“it should be a place where athletes can safely put down their differences and come together in celebration of sport and friendly competition. Ultimately there are few things left in this world which bring the world together and look to unite people the way the Olympics can.”