Squash is in the running to be included in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. A reliable source once told me that a few decades ago squash simply had to formally apply to the IOC and it would have been guaranteed entry into the Games, but the powers that be (in squash) dragged their feet and did not apply. Then when they decided they wanted in, it was too late. One wonders what the motivation was to keep the sport out of the Games. During the 1970's squash was one of the preeminent sports in the world. Winning the British Open was the highest honor, it was the de facto World Champs at the time, and it was competed for by the best squash players from many countries around the world. I am sure those squash players would have opted to play for Olympic Gold had they gotten the chance. One can only hope that the decision at the time was made for good reasons, with the best interests of the sport in mind.
It must have been hard for all the squash players who competed in the recent British Open in London to pass by the Olympic venue for this year knowing that squash won't be a part of it. The selection process for the London Olympics, which happened eight years ago, resulted in no new sports being added. Squash came closer than any other sport to getting in to this year's Games, but the decision to include it somehow did not get ratified in the end (a two thirds majority is required), so it did not happen for 2012. Irrespective of squash not being a part of it, you may be as excited as I am about the upcoming Olympics. With the extent of coverage of the selection trials and all the marketing of the Games themselves it is hard not to get enthused as a sports fan. Remember back to the last Olympics, there were some pretty memorable moments. Most notable for me was seeing Michael Phelps win every event he entered. No mean feat. He is looking in fine form again by winning various US team trials this week. Three more medals in London and he will have more Olympic medals in total than any athlete in history.
Organizing the Olympics is an amazing feat in itself and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) work hard behind the scenes to keep everything moving along. The Games themselves are a culmination of years of effort and planning. The IOC have lots of tough decisions to make, one of them being which sports to include. Golf and rugby sevens got voted in for the next Olympics in Rio in 2016, at the expense of, amongst others, karate and squash. Golf has not been in the Olympics for a century but is back in the fold, a great outcome for the millions of golf fans around the world. The IOC slightly complicated their lives by choosing golf though, because now they need to build a brand new top flight golf course to host the competition. The course not only needs to be challenging enough but also it needs to be designed well enough to handle the number of golfers who will play on it in such a short period of time. Deciding on the right golf course designer would have been an important decision and was no doubt very carefully considered. The IOC finally settled on a well known American company to do the work, Hanse Golf Course Design. What you may not know is that the company was founded and is run by a gentleman whose daughter went to squash powerhouse, Trinity College. So at the very least he is aware of the game, and at best he is a fan and may even put in a good word for squash. What I like about this particular decision is that the IOC chose from eight alternatives and went with the candidate that most aptly met the selection criteria issued by the Rio 2016 organizers. The careful transparent selection process resulted in a good decision in the end.
There are two big decisions for the 2020 Games that the Executive Board of the IOC will make in Buenos Aires on September 7th next year. They will decide on where the Summer Olympic Games will be held in 2020 and will also announce which new sport will be added in that year. There are 26 sports in the Summer Olympics this year and, with the addition of rugby sevens and golf, there will be 28 in 2016, which is the maximum number of sports per paragraph 2.1.4. of the Olympic Charter. So I believe the only way a new sport can get in is to drop an existing one, the choice as to which one of these should get dropped will be an interesting one. It will be a tough choice, unlike if we were trying to get figure out which sport to drop from the Winter Olympics, which would be an easy decision (starts with a C).
But since the choice of sport is often influenced by the location for the Games, let us focus first on which city is likely to host the 2020 Games. The shortlist of potential sites is Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul. Each of these cities has tried before but only Tokyo has previously hosted a Summer Olympics (1964). The IOC has stated that the most important criteria when considering which city should host the games is not the financial resources of the host country but the risk attached to the project, i.e. where the Games is most likely to be run successfully and without incident. They made their point by previously cutting the cities of Doha and Baku from the 2020 list, even though both are in cash-rich oil countries. To my mind, Tokyo is the favorite amongst the three cities still in the running, despite the fact that the last Summer Olympics and the 2018 Winter Olympics were given to neighboring China. I say this because Europe is in the midst of an economic crisis that directly affects both Spain and Turkey.
The Spanish government would have to provide financial guarantees for the project in order for the IOC to commit to them. This seems a little reckless at a time when the country is in a severe debt crisis and their biggest banks are taking bailout money. Turkey presents a different issue, they have applied to host the Euro Soccer Champs in 2020, the same year as the Olympics. This does not sit well with the IOC and they probably won’t go with Istanbul, simply because the Turkish citizens themselves would much prefer to host the soccer. I don’t think a national referendum would be required to prove this, just ask any Turkish friend you have (who is not a weightlifter). So, by a process of elimination, Tokyo is a natural front runner for the 2020 Games. Tokyo also has a track record of putting on a Games successfully and an Olympics may have significant intangible benefits for the Japanese people themselves in the wake of last year's natural disaster in that country. I think Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Olympics and I hope they do, but this does not bode well for squash. The reason I say this is that karate is likely to make the most impact if included.
Karate has been around since World War 2. It was started in Okinawa, Japan, and has about 50 million practitioners around the globe (according to the Japanese government), which is more than twice the number of squash players. But there are already two martial arts events at the Olympics - judo and taekwondo. So why include karate too? And what about sumo, aikido, jujitsu and the 54 other Japanese martial arts, surely they all would also want to be a part of it? Nevertheless, if karate gets in it will certainly be a spectacle (think Karate Kid).
Wushu, too, has to be a leading contender after making a splash at the most recent Olympics. Wushu is basically kung fu and is an all encompassing chinese martial art. Wushu literally means martial art. This sport received special dispensation from the IOC to be held as an independent sporting tournament in Beijing at the same time that the last Olympic Games was being held, something they would never ordinarily allow, except for official exhibition sports (which it was not). The wushu competition was held in the Olympic stadium, the competitors stayed in the Olympic Village and the winners received medals in a ceremony just like the Olympians did. But unlike karate, which would presumably be a full-contact competition, wushu likely won't be real fighting. There is a full-contact bare-handed version of wushu but the most impressive form of the sport includes a range of weapons. Clearly the competitors cannot actually fight each other with real knives and swords so instead the athletes put on solo demonstrations with their weapons and then receive points based on a set of aesthetic criteria (see pic at bottom). This sounds more like art than sport.
I guess squash is just not as impressive to watch as these other sports. And there is not as much variation in squash - there is only one common instrument, a racquet, and only ever one ball on court. And there is only one popular version of the game (international softball singles), one governing body (the World Squash Federation), one set of rules and a single universally accepted scoring system. There are not a variety of different fighting styles or sects within the sport. There is no good acting on a squash court (a little bad acting perhaps) and when it is played well, there is no violence either. Normally, there is no blood on a squash court. So why include squash when it is not as impressive as a martial arts contest? I cannot think of a reason, aside from the fact that squash is a real competition, it takes significant physical and mental strength in order to play it well. And it is the healthiest sport in the world and is played by 20 million people on all seven continents (prior world champions hail from only five different continents though). And it is really affordable for almost everyone on the planet and is a sport that can be played for an entire lifetime. Other than that, I can't think of any reasons why squash would be perfect for the Olympics. I mean, it is not like squash captures the essence of gladiatorial conflict in a totally real, yet non violent way..
The other sports shortlisted for 2020 are baseball, roller sports, softball, sports climbing and wakeboard. Baseball and softball got voted out previously so probably stand little chance of getting back in. Roller sports were exhibited at a prior Olympics but the sport did not receive the traction it needed, no pun intended. Sports climbing and wakeboard are loads of fun but are not well known throughout the world. The good news is we won’t have to wait until September 2013 to know which sports the IOC are leaning towards. Early next year the shortlist will be cut one more time. It is not clear how many sports will be left for possible inclusion after the cut, but it seems to me that this list may very well include squash, karate, wushu, plus whichever sport gets voted out after London (included on the list by default). Of course, in order to make space, one existing sport will need to go. The way I understand it, that is not guaranteed to happen. If it does, what will that sport be?
What do you think the chances are that squash will get voted into the 2020 Olympics and which sport is likely to get cut to make place for it, if any? For what it's worth, I'll give you my best guess in my next blog.