Squash: Champions' mission to put squash on the map

Cassie Campion and Peter Nichol are world champions but still struggle for recognition at home. By Richard Eaton
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The Independent Online
CASSIE CAMPION is one of the best athletes in Britain. She also has a pretty face, long hair, an affable demeanour and one of the best romance stories in sport.

Recently she married her long-time friend from childhood, who became one of her coaches, and shortly afterwards she took the title of world champion. This week Campion is seeded to achieve the feat of being the only woman from this country to claim both the World and British Open championships in her sport. But how many people have any idea which that is?

It is the game-in-a-room, a limiting factor when it comes to televising it, but something which until recently made squash one of the most successful participatory sports in Britain. And for the first time Britain has a man, Peter Nicol, who holds both its major titles.

Yet Campion and Nicol walk down the streets where they live with the relaxed certainty that they will not be recognised. That is particularly remarkable in Nicol's case since this week in Aberdeen the British Open is being held just a dozen miles down the road from his home town.

Both are better known in Cairo than in Inverurie or in Halifax. Their Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Barada, has a protecting entourage, substantial government funding and national hero status at home. And he is only the world No 3.

None of this is a surprise to those who watched how the fashionable fitness sport of the 1970s and 80s went into a decline during the 90s, when other ways of keeping healthy became trendy.

But worse was to follow. Triggered by the Bosman ruling and boosted by European free trade, a whole series of even larger economic developments have threatened to push a whole range of sports to the side of the shop window, including all of the indoor racket sports, hockey, netball, swimming and most women's sport except tennis.

The influx of colossal sums of money into football, technological improvements in its dramatically increased television coverage, greater attention to viewing figures and cruelly intensifying newspaper circulation wars have all rushed along together.

Money has long since ceased to be just a medium of exchange or even just a store of value. The media moved first towards the entertainment industry, then into show-business, and increasingly away from the reporting of all sports.

Now it has to be major games and major names. David Beckham and Posh Spice , slow-motion replays which dissect the referee, courtesy controversies in golf or a world champion who beats not only boxing's best but its politics.

It sells, but the cultural loss is enormous. Badminton, a beautifully graceful sport first depicted on Chinese pottery 3,000 years ago, still has between four to five million casual players in Britain, appeals particularly to women and is probably the largest participatory sport in this country bar fishing.

But badminton's newspaper space is less than one-sixth of what it used to be 15 years ago and the television coverage, which not so long ago was improving, has lost ground steadily. Yet the Olympic debut seven years ago in Barcelona saw badminton enjoy the largest television coverage of any sport at the Games for the first five days until the athletics started.

No-one would now know that England is in the top six out of 150 nations, that Simon Archer holds the world speed-hitting record and that Great Britain looks poised to achieve its first badminton medal at an Olympic Games, in 10 months' time in Sydney.

Sports centre managers say that if they too were allowed to pursue the profit motive unharnessed, they could fill their buildings morning, afternoon and evening with badminton alone, excluding other activities altogether.

But they are charged to look after the cultural, recreational and entertainment needs of as many human activities as possible. Shouldn't the media do so too?

That shrinking feeling is still more apparent with table tennis. Yet it is the quickest, slickest, most sleight-of-hand game of them all, with a World Championship which has sometimes attracted more nations than any event outside the Olympics and a steady trickle of television coverage in continental European countries.

But in this country it is ping-pong, still thought of as a parlour pastime, or as a joke, even though in the remarkable Matthew Syed we have someone able simultaneously to earn a first-class degree at Oxford and to succeed in an internationally professionalised sport.

The shut out of so-called minor sports is often as unrelated to funding as it is to success. Badminton has spent around pounds 6m making its national centre the best in the western world, and other sports have enjoyed an upsurge in the money available to them thanks to the National Lottery.

But from television or newspapers you could get the idea that they hardly exist. "We have important soccer televised five nights a week," explained one sports editor. "There is more Test cricket than ever before, World Cup rugby in this country, big golf tournaments most weeks and bigger British stories in boxing and tennis than for half a century. For many other things there is no longer the space."

There is no longer the ethos either. Sports coverage is more television- led than it has ever been and has moved steadily away from providing a public service.

So much depends on image, marketing and sponsorship. And on those counts all but the top dozen or so sports have suffered. Hence this week in Aberdeen there are more than major career goals at stake for Nicol and Campion.

Campion is trying to become the first British woman ever to hold both of squash's major titles, but upon her ability to capture something much more financially valuable - the public imagination - may rest the survival of the struggling women's game.

Nicol is trying to become the first home player in a quarter of a century to successfully defend the British Open and the first to win it in his home city.

If he does, it may create something of an image with which a sport that began in the last century might promote itself in the next. If he fails, it will be another nail in a sporting coffin likely to be wheeled out not too far into the new millennium.