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A Complete Guide To Lacrosse In The Olympics: Past, Present And Future

Now that the Olympics are over, and everyone has had a chance to step back and regain their breath, it’s time to have a real discussion about Lacrosse being played in the Olympics. I’ll run through the past, covering the history of the sport in The Games pretty quickly with links, then run through our current situation, then I’ll lay out some of the biggest roadblocks to Lacrosse becoming an Olympic sport! Finally, I’ll get to a silent roadblock that NO ONE seems to be addressing.

Lacrosse’s Olympic Past:

At this point, everyone should know that Lacrosse used to an Olympic sport. In 1904 and 1908 lacrosse was played between two or three teams, and each time Canada took home the gold. It is important to remember that back then, the Olympics also gave out medals for Poetry. Obviously, things changed. In 1928, 1932 and 1948 the sport was played as a demonstration game. The US has been represented by a club or college team, and both Johns Hopkins and RPI have represented the nation.

usa u19 lacrosse helmet gloves shoes warrior lacrosse
Team USA is now Team USA!

Lacrosse’s Current Olympic Status:

Just last year, Lacrosse’s Interational Federation, the FIL (Federation of International Lacrosse), was accepted into Sport Accord, the international sporting body of which every Olympic sport must be a member. The FIL united the men’s and women’s games under one single federation in 2008, and this was a huge step towards Olympic eligibility.

Recent years have also seen an exponential growth of the sport’s popularity, and this is true not only in the US and Canada, but also worldwide. More national teams and notional governing bodies exist now than ever before, and the sport seems well positioned to keep growing. However, lacrosse has not yet reached the levels it needs to if the sport wants to be an Olympic LOCK.

While there are around 45 National teams right now on the men’s side and over 20 on the women’s side, that is just not going to be enough to get it done. Many of these national programs are not recognized by their own national sporting oversight groups, some are quite new, and many currently only offer lacrosse to men. If lacrosse wants to be an Olympic sport, the international push must continue, but the focus needs to be on national recognition, and the involvement of women.

The Olympic Charter is pretty clear in its stated goals for an equal playing field between men and women, especially when it comes to number of sports offered, so if women’s lacrosse is not a compelling partner to men’s lacrosse, the process could be much slower. Women’s Rugby 7s seems to be a bit of an exception here, so there is some flex on this point. However, an effort must be shown, and honestly made.

Overall, there does seem to be a desire, even if it is somewhat limited, from outside of the lacrosse community, for the sport to be included in the Olympics. But for now, this is just good momentum, as the real dirty work still lies ahead.

Lacrosse’s Olympic Future:

Typically, for new team entries, the IOC seems to be looking for sports that can be revenue positive, are played by a large number of nations, adhere to the World Doping Code, and are competitive. They want sports that will shine on the world stage, but won’t cast a shadow over the Games themselves. Soccer is in (but with age requirements), softball is out because the US killed everyone all the time, and Rugby 7s is one of the next sports in because it is fast, popular, can make money and is played well by a good number of countries. (Yes, the US already has a Rugby 7s team, and they are rapidly improving.)

The Olympic Charter says that they can hold no more than 28 sports, and no less than 25. Right now there are 25, but Rugby 7s and Golf join the fray in Rio de Janiero in 2016, so unless some other sport is dropped, lacrosse is left to vye for the only available spot. Sports must also be added before or at the announcement of the next site (although this rule can be waived), so if lacrosse is going to be added to the Olympics, it is unlikely to happen before 2024 or 2028 at the earliest.

However, Lacrosse is getting there on most of the fronts I laid out above, but if there is one glaring issue for the sport right now, it is a lack of parity. There are two top dogs in lacrosse right now, and one of them (the US) is still a bit bigger than the other top dog (Canada). So while there is some parity, the US still dominates. I’ll be honest with you… this is bad for our Olympic hopes.

Now I am NOT arguing that the US shouldn’t be as good as it is at field lacrosse. Not even one bit. But I am saying that if we want to be an Olympic sport, the rest of the world needs to catch up, and quick. Let me tell you right now, the answer is NOT sitting on your butt and saying, “hey World, CATCH UP!” The answer is getting out there and involved, and making it happen. Pretty simple. Find a national program, and find ways to help them out, whether it’s sending gear, fundraising, or going over to volunteer. Want Lacrosse in the Olympics? Put your money where your mouth is. It’s really that simple and has to come from the core of current believers.

For team sports, there is also a 12 nation limit, although that number can be increased at the discretion of the IOC and IF, but for lacrosse, 12 is a great place to start. Yes, it means that only 12 nations get to send lacrosse teams, and that is a small number, but this would also place an additional importance on qualifying in world games, and if anything, this would make the lacrosse community that much stronger. Want to go to the Olympics? Do well at the FIL World Championships. If that’s not a great motivator, I don’t know what is.

Now speaking of doing well at the FIL World Champonships, and then qualifying for the Olympics, it brings up the most unique, and interesting, hurdle for the inclusion, or exclusion, of Lacrosse as an Olmypic sport. It all stems from the history, and the current story of lacrosse, and how this sport simply can not leave that behind.

The Invisible Issue:

Some of you may have noticed that I did not include the Iroquois in my “top of the heap” list along with the US and Canada, even though they certainly belong up there when play on the field is considered. And that is because the Iroquois Lacrosse teams present the greatest opportunity for success, and the greatest opportunity for failure, in this entire Olympic dream.

Olympic Lacrosse without the Iroquois? No thanks.

And yet, for some bizarre reason, NONE of the articles I’ve read so far really touch on this, except for a staff piece from Indian Country Today on the Irqouis U19 team’s success in Finland, which ever so briefly touches on the subject.

If Lacrosse were to be included in the Olympics, it should ONLY be done so with an Iroquois team being eligible to play in the games. The Iroquois would obviously have to qualify like everyone else at the World Championships, but there can be no doubt as to whether or not they would be eligible to compete as a nation in the Games. If the Iroquois can’t compete in Olympic Lacrosse, there shouldn’t be Olympic Lacrosse.

There is a great level of argument and misunderstanding when it comes to Native nations’ sovereign status. Look no further than this Yahoo discussion on why the Iroquois don’t have their own Olympic teams for proof of the ignorance. From a “legal” stand, there are numerous treaties out there (and that doesn’t even get in to the cultural and identity issues) that validate the Iroquois’ sovereign status as a nation, and they can once again successfully issue, and travel on, their own passports.

Here is an except from the Iroquois Nationals website:

The Iroquois name for themselves is ‘Haudenosaunee’ which means “People of the Longhouse”. The longhouse symbolizes a way of life where the Six Nations Confederacy live under one common law, think with one mind and speak with one voice. That law is called “Gien na sah nah gonah” the Great Law of Peace. The alliance of the Haudenosaunee created the first United Nations in this land, thus we maintain the oldest, continuously operating form of government in North America. We have lived in northeastern North America for thousands of years. The people of the Six Nations currently residing in New York and Canada remain sovereign and independent. The Iroquois people identify themselves as citizens of their respective nation and travel internationally under their own passports.

For me, this is more than enough for them to compete at the Olympics, but as usual, it’s not always that simple. The IOC wants each nation to have a National Olympic Committee, and currently there are 204 of these worldwide. Currently, the Iroquois are not one of those 204 nations. So in order for the Iroquois to be included, should lacrosse ever make it to the games, an NOC really should be set up within the nation. That seems entirely possible at first glance. Of course, then we get to the next potential problem.

NOCs are supposed to be made up of both men’s and women’s teams and athletes, and while the Iroquois do have a women’s national team, playing under the name Haudenosaunee, I worry that the women’s game will not grow as quickly as it could, and that this could negatively impact the chances for an Iroquois NOC. I have certainly heard that there is movement to get more girls playing the game, but I believe this needs to remain a point of continued focus.

(EN: Portions of the above paragraph have been updated with correct information. Thanks to Italialax77 for keeping us honest and accurate!)

A smaller focus on women’s sports could make an NOC acceptance less likely. And if your country has no NOC, the chances of your teams competing can drop without extenuating circumstances. In order to be assured of participation, an Iroquois NOC is a potentially good route, and I think it could add to the growth of women’s lacrosse, and overall sports participation, greatly.

The Olympics are a huge stage, and to bring Lacrosse to that stage, WITH the originators of the game; the ones who gifted it to the rest of us, would be a true achievement for the entire community. Arriving on the Olympic stage would validate the sport for many, but for the Iroquois, it could be something so much bigger.

It would be their chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with other nations, and finally be counted as an equal, which they have deserved since the Olympic inception, and long before that… and they would be doing it on their terms, and through their sport.

We often talk about Growing The Game, and doing so in the “right” way, but that can be hard to define sometimes. Now is not one of those times.

The Hopeful Path:

We (the world) play the Iroquois longstick game, and our collective Olympic dream for Lacrosse must therefore include the Iroquois’ dream at its deepest core. While the biggest challenges out there for many people are increasing parity and popularity, the real challenge is much more complex:

Can we successfully thrust our game onto the world stage, while honoring and supporting those who gave us the gift in the first place?