Squash an outsider in bid to become Olympic sport
GENEVA (AP) — In the two-year contest for a single spot in the 2020 Olympics, squash long seemed to be the front-runner.
The World Squash Federation delivered a more dynamic and television-friendly game to answer constructive criticism following two previous failed attempts to gain Olympic status.
Squash also figured to be popular with future hosts, which are stretched to stage 28 sports within budget and without creating “white elephant” venues. Squash offers a flexible, cost-effective option with potential to find an eye-catching location on the city’s landscape.
Then, in February, everything changed.
Seven months before the Sept. 8 vote in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board upset all calculations by removing wrestling from the list of core Olympic sports. Modern pentathlon was predicted as a more likely victim, while taekwondo and field hockey were also in the discussion.
When squash was — as predicted — chosen by the same IOC board on a three-sport shortlist in May, it was alongside a strong showing from wrestling and the combined forces of baseball-softball, two more sports which recently lost Olympic status.
“As far as the World Squash Federation is concerned, we are looking at it as two matches,” the governing body’s president, N. Ramachandran, told The Associated Press in an interview. “The first match was to get on to the shortlist, which we did. The second match is now to get into the Olympic Games program.”
Ramachandran was relatively new to his role four years ago, when squash was beaten by golf and rugby sevens in the contest to choose two new sports for the 2016 Games.
By July 2011, the Indian businessman was leading a widespread overhaul of the Victorian-era game when the IOC confirmed its candidacy for 2020 inclusion against baseball, softball, karate, roller sports, sports climbing, wakeboard and wushu.
“We felt we had to radically change our sport — the way we present our game to broadcasters, the way we judge our sport and the way the sport itself is played,” Ramachandran said.
Most eye-catching are colored glass courts on which scores, replays and video review decisions — using the Hawk-Eye camera system like tennis, cricket and English Premier League football — are projected.
“The floor of the court becomes a scoreboard,” Ramachandran said.
First-time viewers also now discover a simpler scoring system where players get a point for each rally won, replacing the traditional rule of scoring only when holding serve. Matches are played faster and extra referees help judge on let calls when players impede each other in the confined court space.
The court is potentially key to the appeal of squash, which has dropped glass boxes into distinctive tournament locations such as the Pyramids in Egypt and Grand Central Station in New York.
“I could do it on the bridge over the Bosphorus, in a bullfighting ring or in the Imperial Palace gardens,” said Ramachandran, eyeing his sport’s potential home in 2020 in Istanbul, Madrid or Tokyo — a decision that IOC members will make on Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires.
“You tell me where to put it, and I will do it,” he said. “You can put them up in a matter of three days.”
Ramachandran sees squash fulfilling its Olympic mandate because an Olympic gold medal would instantly become the pinnacle of a player’s career.
And even with only 32 men and 32 women playing in the Olympic events, squash would likely see medals won by less heralded Olympic teams.
“It’s a chance of getting new countries on to the medal podium,” Ramachandran said.
Egypt won only two silver medals at the London Olympics — in men’s fencing and wrestling — yet it has five men in the current top-10 rankings in squash.
“We have had male and female world champions from each of the five continents. Tell me how many sports will have that?” Ramachandran said.
Enthusiasm flows in the Indian official’s speech, and he leads a campaign that has been backed by tennis greats including Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters. Within the IOC membership, Prince Tunku Imran of Malaysia — one of Ramachandran’s predecessors as world squash leader — has also pushed its case.
Still, wrestling appears to have the influential support of Russian President Vladimir Putin for a campaign that has brought the United States and Iran into a common cause.
“It’s just like any other election — people make up their minds fairly quickly,” Ramachandran said. “I accept it (the result) with all humility.”