By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

The game of field hockey has faced various obstacles over the years. In the early part of the century, it was social conservatives who believed that American women who played any sport were ruining their reproductive capacities.

Then there were the athletic directors of the 60s and 70s who refused to give the game varsity status at their colleges and universities, until the federal government stepped in with the 1973 Civil Rights Act.

Then came the institutional discrimination of the late 70s and early 80s, where the "non-revenue" sports were routinely pushed aside and given inferior equipment and facilities.

The American field hockey community, however, may be facing its greatest threat to date. The threat, however, comes from a figure that is supposed to help the sport and all of its amateur sports bretheren.

The threat comes from none other than Norm Blake, the new chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Blake, a man who comes from the hotel business, has hatched a plan to redistribute the present budgets of the 39 national governing bodies (NGBs) of all of the Olympic sports, putting them more or less under the direct control of the United States Olympic Committee.

According to the Associated Press, the new plan has USOC negotiating agreements with the NGB's to provide such things as coaching support, marketing programs, operational assistance and bookkeeping.

In return, the NGB will be accountable for running an efficient operation, maintaining quality staff and training facilities, fundraising for the sport, and making sure money gets to the athletes and the coaches.

Why all the changes? To enhance the bottom line -- the Americans' already sky-high medal counts at world championship and Olympic events.

``We feel we are accountable to making America proud, and that comes down to the medal count,'' Blake told the AP. ``So we are consciously allocating resources to that end, which means we are taking from some to give more to others.''

By eliminating or sharply cutting what Blake terms ``low value-added programs,'' the USOC hopes to speed up the development of athletes, improve coaching, and boost the overall haul of medals. Among the so-called ``low value'' programs which is being targeted is the game of field hockey.

The improvement of individual athletic teams through their national governing bodies, however, is not addressed in Blake's radical restructuring.

The restructuring is essentially geared towards popular individual sports like wrestling, cycling, boxing, track and field, and swimming. In all five of these Olympic events, the number of male participants and events in the Olympic calendar outnumber the female participants and number of events.

Olympic boxing and wrestling are all-male. Cycling, swimming, and track events have historically held shorter distances for women than men, though that gap has shrunken over the years. There is still the sting, however, of women being forbidden to run a distance of more than 800 meters until the 1970s.

When Blake was asked by the Associated Press to justify his decision, he sounded a little like the American politician Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker who was known for candor, a lack of tact, jingoism, and a short temper.

``There are certain sports that are not indigenous to the United States, so the available feedstock of potential athletes is limited, the amount of support available in the U.S. from a fundraising standpoint is limited, and we are therefore disadvantaged,'' he said. ``We have to very seriously look at what level of support we give those particular sports.

``These are sports that, for all practical purposes, are not really a concern to the American public, and the level of athletic involvement at the grassroots level is relatively nominal. Do we want to throw money at a sport that, frankly, would not have the means to ever medal or to make America proud? And how much money is that?''

Asked whether his plan would most punish the weakest sports and essentially give up on them, Blake replied:

``We feel an obligation as part of the (Amateur) Sports Act (of 1980) that we need to have a basic readiness to serve or a minimal capacity to represent even a minor sport,'' he said. ``We feel an obligation to make sure that that sport remains viable at some minimal level. Very frankly, minimal level means to support a nominal amount of overhead costs, and enough of an organization to advocate the interests of that sport. Not much more than that.''

But what Blake is failing to realize is that his redistribution of funds constitutes a fundamental philosophical shift in the Olympic ideal: to compete against the best in the world, the bringing together of the youth of the world in many cultures.

The act of Blake putting the game of field hockey on his "target" list should sent up a major red flag to those who believe in Title IX as well as the Olympic movement. Field hockey is one of the only American sports which has more female participation than male. The act of targeting field hockey and putting the male-dominated individual sports higher on the funding list is nothing less than a slap in the face of gender equity.

Then again, Newt Gingrich didn't last very long as House Speaker, did he?

What do you think? Email us at topofcrcle@aol.com, and we'll try to print a random sampling of your opinions, as long as you are willing to give us your name and where you are from.

A very thorough letter yields a different perspective: that a USOC funding cut puts the game back in the hands of American players.