The Olympic trials season is just getting started, but one group of American athletes can already forget about the London Games.
Earlier this month, the U.S. men's field hockey team pulled out of a February Olympic qualification tournament, eliminating its last chance at booking a spot in London.
Field hockey players who have never competed in the Olympics are left to wonder if they'll ever get to the Games, if it's worth the considerable sacrifice to continue in an undermanned sport with a dubious U.S. Olympic history. Only 12 teams qualify for the Olympics, and the U.S. men, dubbed "minnows" by a Malaysian newspaper in 2009, are ranked 24th in the world, constantly making them the underdog.
The U.S. is 0-for-the-Olympics. It's 0-26-3 all-time and hasn't qualified for the Games since 1956 (the U.S. received automatic berths as hosts in 1984 and 1996). It won bronze at the 1932 Los Angeles Games -- where three teams competed and it was outscored 33-3 in two games.
The chances of winning the six-nation qualification tournament were slim anyway. The U.S. snuck into the field via a fifth-place finish at the Pan American Games in October (The U.S. women's field hockey team won the Pan Am Games, beating world No. 1 Argentina, to make its second straight Olympics.), where the winner (Argentina) reached the Olympics and the next four slotted into one of three 2012 qualification tournaments. The field for the qualification tournament, held in India, included four higher-ranked teams -- India (10), Canada (14), France (18) and Poland (19) -- fighting for one precious Olympic bid.
USA Field Hockey officially announced the withdrawal last Tuesday, "primarily due to player unavailability and player retirements and injuries." Players were informed the week before via e-mail and a 90-minute meeting at the Westlake (Calif.) Hyatt hotel.
Almost collectively, players said they were angered and disappointed, but not surprised.
"The natural competitor in them was a little bit hurt and wounded," said coach Chris Clements, the New Zealander who replaced six-year coach Nick Conway on Jan. 1; Conway left for an assistant job with the U.S. women's team.
The withdrawal wasn't a shock because of the snowballing reasons in the USA Field Hockey news release. Of the 16 players on its Pan Am Games roster, nine had bowed out of the Olympic qualifying tournament in the last two months, including six of the team's top 10 players. A couple retired, some couldn't take the time off from their jobs or school and others were simply hurt.
That left two options. Pull out, or call up several players from its under-21 junior team, some to play significant roles.
"Taking a couple junior players is always a good thing, to get them exposed and get the experience," said Jon Ginolfi, part of the senior national team since 2005. "But the way things were, they were going to have to take a lot of junior guys. I don't think a lot of them are ready, especially going to India with a crowd of 50,000 people watching. Competition's real, real tough. A lot of guys aren't used to that."
Terry Walsh, Technical Director of High Performance for USA Field Hockey, admitted another factor for withdrawing, one that's prevalent in Olympic sports: potential -- perhaps probable -- embarrassment. The most recent example of Olympic imbalances was provided by the U.S. women's soccer team, which recorded consecutive 14-0 and 13-0 drubbings in Olympic soccer qualification just last week.
"I don't think that does anything for anybody, either the victorious team, but probably even less the teams that get battered," he said. "If you get an inferior team going to a competition, this team that's being knocked around faces it every day. That has an incredibly negative reaction to the psyche, the confidence, the whole well-being of the program.
"That's something we're very aware of. We have a very fragile men's field hockey program in America, and we strive so hard. With our maximum quality, we can compete. Once you take away what's been a decimation of our playing quality, you have to reassess."
A fragile men's field hockey program is right; men's field hockey's growth in the U.S. must start at its roots. It's not an NCAA scholarship sport, unlike women's field hockey. The difference is staggering in high schools, where 192 boys played on prep teams last year, dwarfed by 61,996 girls, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
But that's not to say the decision to dash faint Olympic dreams was easy. Walsh was a member of a medal-contending Australian Olympic team in 1980, and two weeks before boarding a flight to Moscow, his team joined the massive boycott of the Games. He knows what it's like to have it snatched away.
"It's definitely a tough thing to, more or less, forfeit on a chance to go to the Olympics," U.S. midfielder/defender Steve Mann said. "In all honesty, if you look it objectively, those chances in India would have been very, very marginal."
Still, Mann and his teammates went to considerable measures in attempting to qualify for the Olympics. Many squeeze training between a full-time job. Mann took a year off from law school in Germany beginning in May and moved to California to train with a majority of the national team.
Starting goalie Tom Sheridan, a New York oil broker, exhausted his vacation days with regular roundtrips to California in the lead-up to the Pan Am Games, where the team's goal was to medal and raise its hopes of making the Olympics. Finishing fifth had a reverse effect.
"It's very nice to have a beautiful wide-eyed dream that you get to qualify to go to the Olympic Games in London," Walsh said, "But there's a huge reality check as well."
If that reality hadn't hit the players after Pan Ams, it certainly did at the Hyatt meeting. The new focus, outlined at the meeting, is on the future with the hope of boosting the team's world ranking into the top 16. The U.S. was ranked 30th in 2008 but improved to 20th at the end of 2009 and 2010 before last year's stumble.
Though USA Field Hockey said money wasn't a factor in the Olympic qualification withdrawal, the move allows more funds to be used in preparation to join the new FIH World League, which debuts later this year and will play into 2016 Olympic qualification.
In trying times, the remaining national teamers appear committed to the program long-term.
"Am I concerned about the future? No," said Mann, who's going back to Germany for a year and plans on rejoining the team after taking a bar exam. "But the immediate future is not going to be easy."
It is going to be familiar, especially on July 27 when the U.S. delegation walks into the London Olympic Stadium, again without a men's field hockey team.
"The atmosphere, the whole experience of it, walking out on opening (ceremony), that's got to be incredible," team captain Sean Harris said. "Part me of is worried that I won't ever make it."