By Daniel Leussink
TOKYO (Reuters) - In a few weeks hockey players line up in Tokyo for the 24th time at the summer Olympics, knowing some fear its days as a core sport in the Games could be numbered unless they can put on a show to kickstart a revival in its waning global profile.
Frequently ranked among the world's most popular sports in part due to its large fan base in India, hockey has remained a niche game in many countries, struggling to attract the kind of global interest that sports like athletics and swimming can galvanise at the elite level.
Like many team sports, hockey has been blighted by competition disruptions in the last 18 months because of restrictions imposed to counter the coronavirus pandemic.
But supporters already breathed one big sigh of relief in 2013: hockey survived a vote that could have resulted in a recommendation from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to exclude it from the Games.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, hockey struggled to attract spectators. With coronavirus curbs already meaning limits on in-stadium crowds and buzz, hockey will be relying even more heavily on television broadcasts this time around to catch the attention of sports fans.
"There was a little bit of a wake-up call from the IOC ... in relation to hockey, based on attendances and figures during the Olympic games," International Hockey Federation (FIH) Chief Executive Officer Thierry Weil told Reuters in January 2019.
Frenchman Weil, who previously worked as marketing director at global soccer body FIFA, has recently been a force behind the introduction of hockey fives, a variant of the game with just five players in each team rather than the standard 11.
The compact format sees shorter matches, played on a smaller pitch, making tournaments easier and quicker to stage in countries with limited facilities.
FIH President Narinder Batra, who also heads the Indian Olympic Association, has previously said his dream was to see hockey fives at the Olympics. Rugby sevens, which is a variation of the sport's full version, made its Olympic debut in Rio.
But the Tokyo Olympics tournament follows the standard format, lasting two full weeks and both being comprised with 12 squads of 16 players each for both men's and women's medal competitions.
Much of the focus within the men's hockey world will be on how far Australia - currently the top-ranked nation in the world by the FIH - and World champions Belgium can go in Tokyo, while defending Olympic champions Argentina and European champions the Netherlands will also be in the spotlight.
Also of interest will be whether eight-time Olympic champions India can roar back to glory after last winning a gold medal at the 1980 Games: a strong performance by the South Asian nation's India men's team would enthuse the giant fan base there, making the sport too large for the IOC to ignore.
In the women's competition, nations to watch include reigning Olympic champions Britain and the world top three of the Netherlands, Argentina and Germany.
Star players and charismatic talents can light up any sport, so much will be expected of Indian men's captain Manpreet Singh, winner of the FIH's player of the year accolade in 2019, the last time it was awarded - a first for an Indian hockey player.
Meanwhile women's player of the year for 2019, the Netherlands' captain Eva de Goede, will carry the weight of fans' expectations, as the World and European champions hope to reclaim the gold medal they won in London in 2012 and Beijing in 2008 after slipping to silver in Rio.
(Reporting by Daniel Leussink; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)