You may have heard the news last month: squash is once again shortlisted for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
We have been down this road before. Perhaps because of the high expectations, enormous disappointment, and lingering heartbreak from missing out on a place on the program for the 2020 Olympic Games at the IOC Congress in Buenos Aires in 2013, this most recent announcement has hit the squash world with a decided shrug of the shoulders.
Both PSA Chief Executive Alex Gough and WSF president N Ramachandran issued similarly cautious press releases upon hearing the news. “We’re delighted that squash has once again been included within the Olympic Games shortlist,” said Gough. “We are confident that squash would bring something special to the programme of the Olympic Games,” wrote Ramachandran.
It’s understandable. When hopes are crushed on a repeated basis, newer hopes naturally are tempered in optimism and enthusiasm.
In December, the IOC voted in a series of reforms for the “Olympic Agenda 2020” that included the abolishment of the cap of twenty-eight sports for the Summer Games, while maintaining the total number of athletes (about 10,500 right now) and medal events (310 at the last summer games).
Under this new system, host cities are allowed to propose the inclusion of one or more additional events for their Games, so sports apply to the Host Olympic Committee who make initial cuts and then choose a group of finalists that are reviewed by the IOC, who gets to make the final decision.
This process is well underway. Twenty-six sports already applied to Tokyo for the 2020 games (air sports, American football, baseball/softball, bowling, bowls, bridge, chess, dance sport, floorball, flying disc, karate, korfball, netball, orienteering, polo, racquetball, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, sumo, surfing, tug of war, underwater sports, waterski, wakeboard, and wushu) and eight of those were chosen by Japanese organizers as finalists: baseball/softball, bowling, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, surfing, wushu, and squash.
Each of these final eight will make a presentation to Japan’s Host Committee in early August, and the Host Committee will recommend one or more to the IOC by September 30. The IOC will take these recommendations and announce which sport or sports will be added to the 2020 Games in August of 2016.
Japan has stated publicly that they will be using three principles put forth by its Tokyo committee to decide among the eight: new sports should be popular among young people; they should “add value to the Games by engaging the Japanese population and new audiences worldwide;” and the selection should be “open and fair.”
Let’s start handicapping.
As we all know by now, squash and karate originally were selected for a place in Tokyo but eventually missed out to golf and rugby sevens. Squash then was an early favorite for getting one more 2020 spot allocated for a “new sport” last summer, but when wrestling was eliminated as a sport and then allowed to apply for reinstatement by competing against the “new sport” group, it was clear that the wrestling drama would again leave squash on the outside looking in (that wrestling—one of the original sports in the modern Games – was reinstated as the IOC’s “new sport” still rankles many).
However, with the unwritten, but seemingly real, rule that a sport must “pay its dues” (by being overlooked several times, for example) before getting in, and with the chance that more than one new sport may be added this time around, squash may actually have its best chance yet.
Having said that, baseball/softball is the overwhelming favorite. Both baseball and softball were on the program in Beijing in 2008, both have the strength of money and influence behind them, and both are highly popular sports in Japan, where professional baseball is followed avidly. You can write them in.
Bowling, which most Americans would consider more of a pastime than sport, nevertheless has mustered over one million signatures in Japan to have it brought on to the program.
Surfing hits a lot of the points that distinguish summer Games: outdoors, beach, attractive and tan bodies, and a cool factor. Surfing also is perennially attractive to teenagers and young adults.
Sport climbing is also appealing to many young adults, has its own cool factors and was chosen last year by the IOC as a demonstration sport at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. It’s a new inclusion, but it’s a definite dark horse.
Karate suffers only from the fact that there are other martial arts already in the Games and that the general public isn’t really sure of the difference between Tae Kwan Do and Karate. Perhaps needless to say, but Karate has a large following in Japan, so Karate is considering this one of their best chances, and they may be right.
Wushu is another martial art, and one with which you may be familiar even if you didn’t know its name. Jet Li is the most famous practitioner of wushu, which was developed just after the second world war as a Chinese attempt to standardize martial arts. Its name, in fact, directly translates to “martial arts” (Wu = martial, Shu = arts). While it may be worthy, wushu suffers in comparison to Karate, and the fact that there are two martial arts in the final eight does not bode well for either—less so for wushu.
Roller sports also have lots of fans, but it suffers from being all-inclusive—it contains everything from figure skating and speed skating to roller hockey and skateboarding. While some of its disciplines are among the most worthy, there are just too many under one umbrella, and it is the least likely of all the sports being considered.
Squash clearly is one of the top three contenders, and with those kinds of odds it really comes down to one simple question: how many sports are going to get in?
It’s true that we have been here before and that experience has taught us to be cautious. Rightly so, but it isn’t yet time to give up.
In fact, as unlikely as it seems, it may just be our best chance.