Inside Lines: Lee-way for squash as racket rivalry boosts Olympic dream

 

Great rivalries are the spice of sporting life, dating back to Ali and Frazier, Nicklaus and Palmer, Borg and McEnroe – plus surely the most iconic double act of all, Coe and Ovett. Now there is another home-grown twosome who, in a higher-profile sport, would regularly command the back pages.

Nick Matthew and James Willstrop are both gritty Yorkshiremen with a long-running and bitter rivalry. They are remarkable in British sport as respectively the world champion and current No 1, yet live within a few miles of each other; Matthew, 31, in Sheffield and Willstrop, 28, in Leeds. But there is little neighbourliness as they swap titles in pulsating and frequently tetchy duels. Unlike Coe and Ovett, who cannily kept their distance until the seismic Olympic collisions of the Eighties, they have battled regularly at domestic and world level. "Our relationship has never been that strong," says Matthew. "We are definitely not the best of friends but it's a healthy rivalry and good for the game." On Friday, squash's biggest hitters clashed for the 42nd time in the Canary Wharf Classic final in London's Docklands, an event designed to showcase the sport's attempt to gain long overdue Olympic recognition in 2020 – Matthew stretching his record to 33-9 over Willstrop for his 20th consecutive victory. Squash tried unsuccessfully for the 2012 and 2016 Games, and is up against seven other wannabes in 2020: karate, roller sports, baseball, softball, climbing, wakeboarding and wushu, which sounds like something to be sneezed at but is actually a Chinese martial art. Matthew thinks it has a compelling case: "The sport can now claim to be truly global. We tick all the boxes." Hoping to convince the International Olympic Committee is Mike Lee, the spinmeister hired to do for squash what he did for London 2012, Rio 2016, Qatar 2022 and rugby sevens – now elevated to Olympic status. A more gratifying task than his last – helping Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards to pen a note of apology for his embarrassing buffoonery in Doha.

2012's heartening news

After the near-tragedy at Tottenham it is good to know arrangements are in hand to give the entire British Olympic team precautionary heart checks before the London Games. "We take the health and well-being of athletes extremely seriously," the British Olympic Association states. All 550 competitors will be screened for cardiac abnormalities by CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young). Locog will have medical personnel at all venues and a polyclinic in the three Olympic Villages. There are formal agreements for hospitals, among them the London Chest Hospital where Bolton's Fabrice Muamba is recovering, to be on standby. Athletes have been treated for dehydration or exhaustion at the Olympics but there have only been two fatalities in 29 Games – the Portuguese marathoner Francisco Lazaro, 21, who had a heart attack in Stockholm in 1912, and thdrug-taking Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen, 23, at Rome 1960.

It's kids' stuff for BoJo

Good to see that Boris Johnson is taking time out from electioneering to endorse a very different mayoral race. Twenty disabled children from London will get to take part in a unique sporting event at the Olympic Stadium next Sunday. Hosted by the charity Gold Challenge, they will feature in a special opening ceremony for the "Mayor's Race", parading around the track with 4,000 competitors, including many celebrities. The children will be chosen by the Panathlon Foundation, which runs multi-sport competitions for young disabled people across all London boroughs. Boris tells us: "This will give them the sporting experience of a lifetime and provide a wonderful taster for what is to come this summer." Ashley Iceton of Panathlon Challenge adds: "For these kids it is the stuff of dreams."

insidelines@independent.co.uk

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