"Inline hockey might never become an Olympic sport"
Yann Maillet (RHAF) sat down with Gilbert Portier, president of the FIRS Inline Hockey Committee. Below is a translation of the French version as published on RHAF. We would love to hear from you in the comments below. Do you agree with Mr. Portier? How would you like to see international inline hockey being organized?
Most won’t even know this, but the head of the international inline hockey world is French. Gilbert Portier, founding president of the club in Montpellier in the 90s, former president of the National French Inline Hockey Committee and the European Inline Hockey Committee is the chairman of the International Inline Hockey Committee (CIRILH) since 2008. He is also one of the vice-presidents of the International Federation of Roller Sports (FIRS). A few weeks after the news landed that USA Hockey would no longer be involved in inline hockey we met with him to answer questions concerning the consequences. He also took the opportunity to discuss other topics as the development prospects of inline hockey in the world and the Olympics. He also confirmed that the World Championships in 2012 will not take place in France.
Gilbert, how should we look at the decision by USA Hockey to step away from inline hockey to the benefit of USARS?
“To really understand the whole subject, we must first look at a few historical facts. In 1995 the first ever world championships in inline hockey were introduced by the FIRS, not the IIHF. The IIHF first said they didn’t want to organize world championships, but they did the following year. It is important to remember that inline hockey has been “created” by the FIRS before the 90s. When they say it’s ice hockey that created inline hockey, it’s not correct legally speaking. Isidro Oliveiras, former president of the FIRS had almost managed to convince the IIHF to withdraw from organizing a world championships in 2000, but it did not happen. USA Hockey wanted to keep it going for a simple reason. The U.S. Olympic Committee knew that the funding would go to roller sports, especially hockey. And that’s why the IIHF World Championships have been revived, largely by Americans.”
If the Americans were able to keep the IIHF World Championships going, one might think that the withdrawal of USA Hockey could create the opposite effect…
“Fact is that USA Roller Sports, which now manages inline hockey in the United States, will not want an American team at the IIHF World Championships. It is still up in the air for 2012, but I think we will not see the United States at IIHF Worlds, only at FIRS Worlds. Whether the IIHF World Championships will still be organized, I do not know.”
What interests can the IIHF have to keep their World Championships going?
“It’s difficult to know for sure. What I do know is that Rene Fasel, president of the IIHF, which is a very influential man as a member of the IOC (International Olympic Committee), doesn’t want to be involved in inline hockey anymore. But he has people behind him who are pushing for it, like his secretary general, whose son plays for the German team. IIHF wanted to get into inline at a time when financial fears were related to the possible loss of partners. Today things have changed.”
When the decision by USA Hockey was announced, people felt it was because inline hockey didn’t generate enough money. What do you think?
“Maybe it doesn’t generate enough money, but that’s mainly because of the current structure. The economic crisis came and now everybody is forced to reduce costs. I think inline hockey brings nothing to the IIHF and that the federation, except for organizing a World Championship every year, does nothing for the sport. It was just USA Hockey that put together training plans for young players and wanted to fight this battle. Don’t forget that the major inline hockey event in the United States, NARCh, is politically closer to the FIRS then the IIHF.”
What are the consequences of this decision then?
“Right now, we do not know, but we can predict them. It can strengthen the position of the FIRS and therefore support the development goals. Today, we are working on getting closer to Northern Europe and the East. It’s great news to know that Latvia will participate in the World Championships in Roccaraso this year. This is essential, because while there is a lack of structure, their motivation is really high. We should also look at countries like South America which always preferred playing IIHF because all their expenses were paid, but they would lose their games. What interests them? We might see them return to the FIRS and a country like Chile may soon join us too.”
In future visions Russia seems inevitable… same goes for Canada from which we don’t know which way they will go and the Scandinavian countries that are left behind…
“We are in discussion with the Russians, and they would almost have been present in Roccaraso, but they are working on filling in the details. Fact is that many Russian players want to come to Europe to play in clubs, but they just don’t have the contacts. If we can come to an agreement with Russia, it opens up the way to Belarus and Ukraine. Contrary to what we think Canadians have a different vision then the Americans, and they won’t simply copy them. But for now, we do not yet know what direction they will choose. It is a little similar in Finland, which sends their womens to the FIRS, but that’s all. Sweden has already been at FIRS in the past, but not with a competitive team. Norway is also expected to join.”
What is the position of CIRILH concerning Africa and Asia?
“We won’t forget them. I won’t deny that things are complicated on the African continent, for reasons that everyone can easily understand; economic and structural. South Africa and Namibia are involved, but this raises a problems I just mentioned. In these countries our sport is mostly played by white people and this leads to social problems. The Maghreb is also interested in the subject, as it does more for ice hockey. But again, there are economic problems. We might consider reconditioning the equipment no longer used in the major nations of inline hockey and make it available for Algeria and Morocco, where there is demand.
For the Asian continent, there are two problems. First, these are the nations who face the highest costs in general every year as they are more distant from the World Championships. At the same time the Asian Championships develop and make the World Cup less attractive for them. We might consider alternating between Continental and World Championships every other year, but it’s risky because at the moment IIHF continues to offer a world championship every year. We managed to develop good contacts with India, Malaysia and Singapore, which could lead to agreements in the years to come.”
This topic comes up every now and then, but listening to you, it feels that inline hockey is still very far from being a potential Olympic sport…
“I’ll even go as far as to say that I’m afraid it will never happen. It will not be enough to reunite the sport on a the world stage. The reason is very simple, and again, it is economic. The Olympics cost almost nothing to a nation except for a few details. The IOC, through the organizing committee of the Olympics in question, shall bear the expenses of nations. Under these conditions, individual sports have better changes as they have fewer athletes. If inline speed skating would become Olympic, every nation would send like five or maybe six skaters and staff, but if inline hockey would become Olympic, the FFRS (French National Committee -red) would send a larger delegation of sixteen players plus staff. The calculation of the costs for the organizing committee is very simple. And as stated regularly, it is necessary that the sport in question is considered “strong” financially or extremely popular as was the case recently with golf and rugby that get loads of attention by the media. And I think this will not be the case with inline hockey, unfortunately.”
You said that Russian players are trying to come to Europe. We are seeing more and more players, especially abroad, who pay their players. Do you think our sport is now economically viable enough to enter a professional state?
“It is for club leaders to answer this question. I’ll just say that with such an approach costs are increasing and in the meantime participation in the United States is steadily declining. So you know what I think, even if it is not for me to say.”
In France inline hockey players still think they are being ignored by their Federation, which they believe still favors rink hockey. What is the position of FIRS in respect of our sport?
“We have long been ignored, also by the FFRS but this has been changing. The concern at the international level is that some nations are weak in terms of numbers. For example, Italy only has roughly 1500 licensed inline hockey players. But the FIRS realized that rink hockey was losing ground while inline hockey was booming. They understood that we were standing for the future and how they treat us is changing.”
Speaking of France, can you tell us if the World Championships 2012 will take place in our country, as rumored?
“Unfortunately, no, the World Championships 2012 will not take place in France. It was our desire and many cities like Anglet, Nice, Grenoble and Valencia were proposed. We wanted to organize this World Championships in Grenoble, but the FFRS has not responded favorably. Nicolas Belloir, its president, had economic arguments that I can understand. Our status allows us to overrule the decision of a national federation, but I do not wish to go through this process. So we will not be in France next year. I am not yet able to say where we will go, but I can confirm however that we will be in California in 2013.”
To conclude on a more personal note. You were the president of Montpellier in its starting years and today you are the president of the International Committee. Are you proud of the path you followed?
“I do not know if you can call it pride. I was the president of my club and I wanted to develop and support our sport. For that, there is no one answer, you just have to step up and take a leading role. I love new adventures and for me, this project was attractive. I think the path I followed was just logical.”
You were much criticized during the World Championships in 2005, which cost a lot of money to the FFRS while you were chairman of the National Committee. What do think about it today, looking back?
“It’s simple. We may have made mistakes at the time, I won’t deny that. But we had to manage a change in presidency which changed a lot of things. And what could we do two months before the event? Notify all nations we would cancel the event? I don’t think it was the right thing to do, that would have had a serious impact on our sport.”
Will you be available for re-election in 2012?
“I don’t know yet.”
While we did pay attention during our French classes and Mr. Google helped us out a lot, please let us know when you see any mistakes in this translation. We would also love to hear your opinion in the comments below.
Pictures by CIRILH / DR / FFRS