Squash's Olympic dream at risk from Vladimir Putin's racket
It may be a popular global sport, but hopes of winning Olympic status on Sunday are threatened by a political stitch-up
Wednesday 04 September 2013
Just about every muscle-flexing activity known to man – and woman – has jostled to climb aboard the Olympic Games bandwagon. From angling to arm-wrestling, chess to cheerleading, bog-snorkelling to ballroom dancing, darts to dominoes, all seem to think they deserve to share the spotlight of the five-ring circus.
Even sheep-shearing. "The time has come to elevate sheep-shearing's sporting status to the ultimate world stage," pronounced a New Zealand farm lobby group earlier this year. "The world's top shearers are athletes who take it to another level."
Apparently, it is already recognised as a sport in New Zealand and Australia and has pressed for inclusion in the Commonwealth Games. But the Olympics? Surely they are trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
More seriously, there is an upcoming tussle this weekend for recognition of a genuine sport which has been overlooked too long for deserved Olympic status.
Squash enters the Olympic rings to do battle with wrestling and the combined sport of baseball and softball at the International Olympic Committee's session in Buenos Aires. At stake is a place on the programme for the 2016 Games in Rio.
It is the only new sport under consideration, the other two having been rejected from the Games programme once before.
Baseball and softball, with a relatively limited global appeal, surely have had their day in the Olympic sun.
But the likelihood is that the politically star-struck IOC will be swayed by the highly improbable alliance in which Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin, the United States and Iran have joined forces to campaign vigorously for wrestling's reinstatement for Rio 2016 after one of the original Olympic disciplines was controversially recommended for the axe by the IOC's own executive board in February.
Now back in the frame following an orchestrated outcry, wrestling has tarted up its act, changing its president, constitution and most significantly its rules in a belated attempt to make it a less yawn-inducing spectacle, and is 4-7 as the bookies' favourite, with squash at 7-4 and baseball/softball 8-1 outsiders.
Squash recognises that Putin power may now have put the IOC in an arm-lock but the World Federation president, N Ramachandran, remains sanguine. "We are a growing, global sport played in 185 countries by millions across the world," he says. "We offer the genuine prospect of new nations on the medal podium. We would be easy and low-cost to integrate into the Olympic Games with just 64 athletes, two competition courts that can be built in days and we have a great track record of being hosted in iconic locations."
Great Britain has a particularly good record in the sport so the nation's medal tally would quite probably be enhanced. England boasts two of the world's leading players in the men's game, fellow Yorkshiremen James Willstrop and Nick Matthew, ranked three and four respectively, whose long-standing rivalry is akin to the old duel between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett on the track.
Matthew, a former world champion, believes squash has a strong case. "Last time the IOC went for the commercial option [when they brought in golf and rugby sevens] but squash can now claim to be truly global," he says. "It has also become more televisual and we have all the traditional Olympic ideals and many of the modern ones, too. We hold a much better hand."
Women's world No 2 Laura Massaro, the first Englishwoman to win the British Open in 22 years, adds: "We deserve to be included and it was almost painful to watch London 2012 with no opportunity to be part of the nation's success.
"All of the other notable racket sports are in the Games already – tennis, badminton and table tennis – but squash has been overlooked in the past and it has been tough to take when you compete at the highest level on the world stage."
In my view too squash surely has the most compelling argument – and I say that without the sound of grinding axes, never having played the game. For it now seems to tick all the boxes in terms of its growing global popularity, diversity of champions, pure athleticism and increased spectator appeal.
Moreover, it might produce medallists from several nations which otherwise rarely get a whiff of Olympic glory, like the current world men's No 1, the artistic Egyptian Ramy Ashour, 25, aka "the Cairo King", said to be the sport's most charismatic exponent since the Khan dynasty.
His female counterpart, Malaysia's Nicol David, 30, said: "I would happily trade all my seven world titles for the chance of Olympic gold."
When squash made its last presentation to the IOC in 2009, it was outmanoeuvred by an appearance from Tiger Woods. It is hoping for better luck and a shrewder strategy this time, pulling out all the stops, with Andy Murray and Roger Federer among those joining the call for its inclusion.
Whether squash will manage to convince the IOC of the added value the sports brings to the Games in the final presentation on Sunday remains in doubt.
Should, however, wrestling return to the mat it will have been a hapless attempt by the IOC to reform the sports programme, as it will be going into the 2020 Games with the same sports as before the replacement procedure started.
Having been pipped last time by a larger oval ball and an even smaller golf ball, squash does not deserve to be squeezed out again, especially by wrestling. If so, we might as well start counting sheep.
Murray: Squash should be at Rio
Andy Murray has backed squash's inclusion in the Olympics, having played the game when he was younger.
"I used to play at our local sports club," the Wimbledon champion said. "I used to go and watch my dad playing club matches. I like it. I think it's a tough sport.
"It's maybe not the best spectator sport, but it's a very difficult sport to play. You have to be extremely fit, have very good hand-eye coordination, good feel, and good touch. It's another racket sport. When you play one, you tend to like to watch the other ones, as well. I love watching badminton, too."
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