The 125th International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Buenos Aires from 4 – 10 September 2013 is bound to be a turning point in the Olympic movement for many reasons. With economic turmoil in many big economies and widespread mischief of doping and match-fixing, the world of sport is facing numerous challenges; putting the IOC in a tough spot.
Three major announcements to be made in the Argentinian capital are – host city of the 2020 Olympic Games, one new sport added to the 2020 Programme and taking precedence, the highly publicized election of a new IOC President as Jacques Rogge steps down after his 12-year term.
The 8-way race for the sole sport to be included in the 2020 Olympic programme was narrowed down to three – wrestling, baseball/softball and squash, on 29th May in St. Petersburg. Karate, sports climbing and wakeboarding seemed to be in good stead, catering to the IOC’s focus on youth appeal, but these sports were shown the exit along with roller sports and wushu.
Wrestling, squash, baseball and softball, are each steeped in rich history. Wrestling has been around for over 7,000 years while the other three have roots dating back to the 1800s. The interesting aspect about this 3-way race is that wrestling and baseball/softball (now bidding jointly), were former Olympic sports that were dropped from the programme, presenting squash a tough battle against two ‘have-been’ heavyweights.
Wrestling needs no introduction to the sporting world. Among the pioneer sports in the Ancient Olympics, wrestling enjoyed a comfortable journey until they received the shock announcement on 12th February in Lausanne that they were to be axed after the 2016 Games. Expectedly, the wrestling fraternity came out strong and loud in expressing their distress and disheartenment. While many had speculated the exclusion of Modern Pentathlon, the inner workings of the IOC remain a full-fledged mystery.
The shortlist of wrestling was anticipated by many quarters due to the heavy involvement of big names from USA, Iran and even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended the SportAccord Convention to present wrestling’s case for inclusion.
After its unofficial debut in the 1904 Games, baseball became an official Olympic sport in 1992; softball joined this elite group in 1996. Both sports were then dropped in 2005 for three main reasons – absence of top athletes (Major League Baseball players), doping incidents, and the notion of both sports being “too American”.
In December 2012, baseball and softball announced their joint bid for a spot on the 2020 Olympic programme. Against the odds but perhaps not too surprisingly, this coalition made the shortlist, with Antonio Castro – a strong baseball proponent, in their corner.
How about squash then? This minority sport, as many call it, is persistently bidding for Olympic recognition via its governing body – the World Squash Federation (WSF):
- After two failed bids – London 2012 and Rio 2016.
- WSF’s delegation featured two of the sport’s finest ambassadors – Ramy Ashour and Nicol David, World number 1s in the men’s and women’s tours respectively.
THE TRUTH IN NUMBERS
Squash encompasses the Olympic ideals in a holistic way
The expulsion of sports from the Olympic Games indicate that no sport can rest on its laurels and must always ensure it lives up to Olympic ideals and remain relevant in changing times. Why then is squash, described as the world’s healthiest sport by Forbes magazine, not a part of the greatest sporting show on earth?
Squash encompasses the Olympic ideals in a holistic way. It is a unique racquet sport where players share the same space and to excel in this gladiatorial battle, one has to be physically fit to top the game dubbed as “physical chess”.
Wrestling has long been a male-dominated sport and only in 2004, did women get a chance on the mat for the first time. In London 2012, 70 countries participated in 18 events with 339 athletes comprising 263 men and only 76 women. The wrestling medal tally highlighted the dominance of certain countries with Russia winning 11 out of the 72 medals contended.
The global appeal of squash spreads over 185 countries from Europe, Asia, The Americas, Africa and Oceania with over 20 million active men and women practitioners of all ages. The sport takes pride in its thriving men’s and women’s tours which promotes gender equality. Already a part of all other multi-sport games, squash also boasts world champions from all five continental regions, offering medal potential to countries that have not had the opportunity to grace an Olympic podium.
In a time when the IOC is looking to minimize costs of hosting the Games, squash presents a strong case for inclusion. Just 64 athletes and a portable glass court that can showcase the best of any host city in a unique way offer the IOC a cost-effective and easy integrative option. Wrestling and baseball/softball on the other hand are bloated, requiring over 300 athletes each and heavy investment in terms of an indoor/outdoor stadium.
UPHOLDING OLYMPIC IDEALS
The International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles, FILA, has made commendable efforts to modernize wrestling in a short time span but are these changes well thought or have they been made hastily in view of a short-term goal – to secure a spot in the 2020 Olympics? The latest announcement by the wrestling federations of the USA and Russia to use different rules in their national championships highlights the lack of standardization within the sport.Development of squash at the grassroots level is at the heart of the sport
Although squash ticked almost every box in terms of Olympic criteria qualification, broadcasting and viewership were stumbling blocks in previous bids. WSF has gone to great lengths to address this, and today, presents an innovative sport – Squash has an easily comprehensible scoring system overseen by a video review refereeing system, and all-glass show courts allow for high-definition broadcast quality which has added dimensions to viewer experience.
Development of squash at the grassroots level is at the heart of the sport, and the WSF Ambassador Programme serves as a catalyst to boost the awareness of squash in nations where the sport is in its infancy. WSF and the squash fraternity are heavily committed to youth development and practice strict compliance to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) codes.
Wrestling has a long history within the Olympic movement and with all due respect, it should be reinstated – but when the time is ripe. The IOC would be wise to grant FILA adequate time to allow a comprehensive revamp for the betterment of the sport.
Baseball/softball seem to be grappling with the same problems that led to their expulsion – struggling to lure Major League players to commit participation in the Olympic games. In contrast, all squash players have pledged to be a part of the Games; an event that will be the pinnacle of their careers.
The IOC is thus faced with a seemingly simple decision – to award the sole spot on the 2020 Olympic programme, to the sport which has listened and learnt, to the sport that deserves its chance – squash.