Lacrosse likely headed back to Olympics; some of world’s best players may not be
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Team Canada defeated Team Haudenosaunee 16-9 on Sunday in the final of the World Junior Lacrosse Championships, held all last week in Winnipeg.
It was a thrilling game between the tournament’s best and highest scoring teams. Team Haudenosaunee led all teams with an average 24 goals per game, including an impressive 14-12 victory over Team USA in the semifinals.
Still, after Team Haudenosaunee took the lead in the first quarter, Team Canada came back to win its fourth-straight gold medal.
The match was, in many ways, a future preview of what could be the 2028 Olympic final in Los Angeles, where lacrosse is expected to make it’s first appearance since 1948, when it was a demonstration sport at the London Games. It was an Olympic medal event twice, in 1904 and 1908.
The problem is that one of the competing nations is recognized by the International Olympic Committee; the other has yet to be.
In fact, the inventors of lacrosse — and some of the world’s best players — might not even get an invitation.
The Haudenosaunee are a confederacy made up of Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Tuscarora peoples — also known as the Six Nations. They have been playing lacrosse since time immemorial, introducing it to the French in the 1750s.
Lacrosse isn’t a game to Haudenosaunee, however. It is a way of life.
Spiritual meaning exists in every aspect of the game, from the way lacrosse sticks are cut, to the strategy and teamwork, to the foods and medicines used when playing matches.
The Mohawk call lacrosse Tewaaraton (pronounced deh-wah-al-lah-don, which means “little brother of war”) because the game is used to mediate conflict and create alliances. Matches also honour the earth, water and other parts of creation.
Woven into Haudenosaunee ceremonies and politics, players learn the game as soon as they can walk, with many attaining scholarships to play on teams across North America.
When men and women return home to play, though, they suit up for the Iroquois Nationals — the national team of the Haudenosaunee. The men’s team, in fact, is playing in Ireland this week in the world under-21 championships.
Even though the Haudenosaunee are recognized by World Lacrosse (the international body that governs the sport) as a “member nation” they are not recognized as a nation-state by most governments or international bodies, including the United Nations.
That has created some difficult situations.
During last month’s World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, Team Haudenosaunee was barred from playing until an online petition and boycott threat by other teams forced organizers to reverse their decision.
Arguing for the team’s inclusion in world competitions is a constant battle for Haudenosaunee leadership.
What makes things more political is Haudenosaunee use their nation’s passports to travel. They also refuse “special recognition” or “one-time invitations,” demanding their nation’s sovereignty be recognized.
This stance led to a diplomatic crisis in 2010, when championships were held in England and both the United Kingdom and the United States refused to recognize the players’ passports.
Stranded in a New York City airport unable to fly, it took the legitimization of their passports by then-secretary of state Hilary Clinton to enable the team to travel.
The passport issue, however, has not ended; A women’s team faced a similar situation in 2015, and the European Union currently calls Haudenosaunee passports a “fantasy.”
Haudenosaunee leadership, however, has remained steadfast. When the 2015 World Lacrosse Championships were hosted by the Onondaga Nation, south of Syracuse, N.Y., Haudenosaunee officials insisted they stamp all player passports upon arrival.
Team Canada, notably, refused to allow it’s players’ passports to be stamped — seeming to forget that they learned their “national sport” from them (or, perhaps remembering the country also banned Haudenosaunee players soon after Confederation in 1867).
The 2028, Games will be in Los Angeles, so it’s unlikely the passport issue will come up.
Haudenosaunee recognition and inclusion in the Olympics, however, will be an issue.
To be allowed entry in any Olympics, the International Olympic Committee uses state recognition at the United Nations as its central criteria. That’s one obstacle.
Nations competing at the Olympics must also compete in five sports. That’s another.
The International Olympic Committee does have a history of allowing “non-national” teams, such as Puerto Rico and Hong Kong to compete. There is also a precedent allowing one-time entries, including refugee squads, in one or more sports.
As mentioned, though, the Haudenosaunee don’t want special invitations. They want recognition and equal treatment.
When the last world rankings were released by World Lacrosse, Team Haudenosaunee was ranked third out of 36 men’s teams and eighth out of 30 women’s teams.
While Haudenosaunee were apparently good enough nations to make treaties with in the past, they may not apparently be good enough to play lacrosse with today.
It’s an absurd situation born of racism.
Still, earlier this year, Haudenosaunee leaders announced they had started the process to form a National Olympic Committee and had reached out to inform the International Olympic Committee.
The struggle, it seems, is never ending to play a game they know best.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, August 18, 2022 10:58 AM CDT: fixes typo