ARNHEM, Netherlands ● With a deep blue pitch, pink sidelines and bright yellow balls, the Olympic field hockey tournament will at the very least be a spectral spectacle.
Add the orange-clad Netherlands to the mix and there is certain to be a riot of color in London.
For the first time, the Olympic tournament will be played on a TV- and spectator-friendly blue field at the Riverbank Stadium in the heart of the Olympic Park. To make sure the new color scheme does not come as a surprise, the Dutch players have been training for months on just such a field at a club in a leafy suburb of the central city of Arnhem.
While tennis players at a recent tournament in Madrid complained about the blue clay courts introduced there, the Dutch players are already used to the color well ahead of their first match in London.
“The first time we got here it was a big shock,” Netherlands women’s coach Max Caldas said. “It was sunny and how the sun reflects on the pitch was different from the green pitch. But for myself and for the girls I think after about two days … the news was over and we just go about it normally.”
Last month, tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal threatened not to return to the Madrid Open unless the new blue clay courts were ditched, saying they were more slippery than traditional red clay. Organizers in Spain had argued the courts made it easier for players and fans to follow the ball.
Hockey players have had no such complaints about their new playing surface, which many are calling “smurf turf.” Once the initial surprise wears off, the field is essentially the same as older-style green, water-based synthetic turf they have played on for years, Netherlands forward Ellen Hoog said after a recent friendly in which the Dutch beat neighboring Belgium — a team they will face at the Olympics — 1-0.
“I don’t see a very big difference between a green and a blue pitch,” said Hoog, who is looking to add a second Olympic gold to the one she won in Beijing four years ago. “I think it’s better for the people watching the match and (for) television.”
The idea behind the change of color is that the contrast between the dark field and light ball makes it easier for spectators to follow the ball, which can travel well over 100 kph (60 mph).
“When it’s dark at night … you see the ball much better because of the blue, the pink and the yellow, than with a white ball and a green pitch. I think that’s a big advantage for the public and TV,” Caldas said.
The defending Olympic and European champion Netherlands women’s team avoided traditional powerhouses Argentina, Australia and Germany in the pool stage of the competition, but still faces plenty of tough opponents in Pool A if it is to reach the knockout stages.
Its pool matches will feature a rematch of the Beijing Olympic final, in which the Netherlands beat host China 2-0, but the most intriguing game could be the one against Britain.
“GB is a very physical team,” Caldas said. “I think that is probably going to be the team to beat for everyone there.”
The two teams competed in a thrilling World Championship semifinal match two years ago. The match ended 1-1 and the Netherlands edged into the final by winning a penalty shootout, but then lost to host Argentina.
However, Britain underscored its gold medal potential by beating Argentina 2-0 in the final of a test event in London this year.
“That’s the best game — the stadium is full, people are cheering for England. I think there are going to be a lot of Dutch supporters also in the stadium,” Hoog said.
The match promises to be a clash of hockey cultures, with the powerful Brits coming up against the agile Dutch.
“It is very difficult to play against England. They are very tough and strong and big girls. We are small and fast,” Hoog said. “It’s very tough for us, but we are training very hard to become more strong and physical as well.”
The blue field has already received a royal seal of approval. The Duchess of Cambridge, who captained her school’s field hockey team when she was still Kate Middleton, hit a few balls with British players in March, though she was ruing her choice of pink jeans as she took to the field.
“The color of the pitch is, well, eye-catching,” the Duchess said. “My trousers really clash.”