In just over two weeks, on July 24, the hockey tournament at the Olympic Games in Tokyo will start. With prominent figures from the hockey world, we have been looking forward for weeks to the battle for the highest hockey gold. Today we speak to the former English hockey player Helen Richardson-Walsh (39), who won gold with Great Britain in Rio in 2016 at the expense of the Orange Women. Today, the 293-time international works as a hockey commentator.
Is the Olympic flame starting to burn for you?
‘Count on it. You can read more and more news about the approaching Games on social media. The British hockey teams were recently allowed to pick up their clothing for Tokyo. This is immediately widely reported in the media. Then you immediately think back to those times when you experienced that yourself. That way you immediately get into the Olympic atmosphere.’
You participated in the 2000, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games and came to no less than 27 Olympic competitions. How will you follow the Games as an ex-international?
‘I am reporting hockey in Japan on behalf of BBC Sport and Radio 5 Live . Unfortunately not from Tokyo itself, but from the studios in Manchester. On behalf of the BBC, only a few people are allowed to travel to Tokyo. These are only those who are really indispensable for reporting. Besides hockey I watch almost all other sports. I remember that during my last Games I absolutely wanted to see everything of the volleyball tournament. I think my TV will be on literally day and night for the foreseeable future.’
Does it feel strange to experience the Games as an outsider for the first time in a long time?
‘Pretty. The Olympics are addictive. It will take some getting used to looking at everything from the side now. I’m glad I’m still involved in hockey as a commentator. That makes the withdrawal process a bit easier, haha. And it makes a difference that I was able to finish my Olympic career in 2016 with a gold medal. I stopped at my peak in that regard.’
How difficult will these Olympics be for the athletes?
“It will be interesting to see what the year’s delay has done to the athletes. I am also curious how they deal with the special circumstances given all the strict corona measures. Waiting a year longer can be detrimental to older athletes, but there are also plenty of athletes who will benefit greatly from the delay. Just think of all the talents that have had extra months to mature. I think all the participants in the Games have learned a lot from adapting to ever-changing circumstances. It’s not easy to just extend your focus on a tournament by a year.’
What is the favorite moment from your own Olympic career?
‘Well, there are a few. Of course, the gold medal of 2016 should not be missing, after our win over the Netherlands. I will never forget how we all ran towards her in ecstasy after Hollie Webb’s winning shootout. The opening ceremony of my first games in Sydney 2000 has stayed with me. To enter such a full stadium for the first time on behalf of your country is a unique experience. You literally feel that you are at the largest sporting event in the world. Goosebumps . And I also feel privileged to have participated in the 2012 Olympics in my own country. We played all our matches in front of thousands of frenzied English spectators, very cool to be a part of.’
Who is your favorite to win the women’s Olympic title?
‘Who else can I name but the Netherlands? They have been number one in the world rankings for years, have won the last World Cup and the last three European Championships. They are the most consistent and relentless team in women’s hockey, each with world-class players. It all seems so natural and easy, those victories. But they work hard for it and are very self-critical. That attitude makes them the top favourite in Tokyo. Note Spain as the surprise of the tournament. That team has so much potential, it has to come out at a big tournament one day.’
Who do you see winning the gold among the men?
“If you had asked me that question last year, I would have said Belgium. Now I’m not so sure about that. At the last European Championship in Amstelveen they were less dominant than I expected, although they didn’t necessarily want to win that tournament. I haven’t seen Australia play in a long time, but I expect a lot from that. They are the number one in the world rankings for a reason. I also tip India as an important outsider for the title. That team is so unpredictable.’
How do you think the British teams are doing? Can they provide a surprise?
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the men win a medal in Tokyo. I think the extra year towards the Games has done the team good. Danny Kerry has been the new national coach of the men’s team since August 2018. The players needed time to get used to his tactical plans. There is now an energetic team that can play very openly. The strength lies in the collective, with the talented Zach Wallace and goal thief Sam Ward as eye-catchers.
I don’t have high expectations of British women. The past few years have been restless, with a coach change and injuries to some experienced players. This team has little experience at Olympic level. But… if they make it through the group stage, anything can happen. The differences between the teams are small from the knockout stage. Everyone can beat everyone in that.’