Olympics: 8 sports vying for single spot at 2020 Games

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wanted: a new Olympic sport. Or, maybe, the return of an old one.

It should have wide participation around the world, be popular with sponsors and spectators, particularly young ones, and have an anti-doping system in place.

Those are just a few of the criteria that the International Olympic Committee will use to pick among the eight sports vying for a single spot in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The contenders are baseball/softball, squash, inline speed skating, sport climbing, wakeboarding, karate, wushu (better known as kung fu) and wrestling.

Wrestling was dropped from the Olympics (after the 2016 Rio Games) in a surprise move in February. Wrestlers are hoping that was just the IOC’s heavy-handed way of forcing their sport federation to get serious about making matches more spectator-friendly or, possibly, getting rid of the men-only Greco-Roman event, and that they’ll be welcomed back into the Olympic family right away.

On Wednesday, May 29, leaders of the eight sports will make presentations to the IOC executive board in St. Petersburg, Russia. The board will then put forward one or more sports for a final vote at the general meeting of the IOC in September.

“I don’t understand how you could look into the wrestling room and not see everything that encompasses the Olympic dream,” said Brock University’s Liisa Wainman.

Every decision this 19-year-old wrestler has made in the last five years has been about getting the chance to represent Canada on the mat at the 2020 Olympics. But, increasingly, an athlete’s dream is only a small part of the multi-billion dollar Olympic machine.

“It’s generally about the money – the TV contracts, the corporate sponsorships … and property development,” said Peter Donnelly, director of the University of Toronto’s centre for sports policy studies.

For host cities, the Games are primarily a way to fast track land development and infrastructure projects. Even the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games, the mini-me of the Olympics, is resulting in a long-talked-about rail link to the airport.

“There are a lot of agendas going on,” Donnelly said. “And far too many sports see the Olympics as some kind of ideal.”

It’s easy to see why. For the vast majority of amateur athletes, the only hope of anyone ever knowing their name or making enough money to move out of their parents’ basement is to win an Olympic medal.

Newmarket’s Robin Mackin, one of the last softball players to get to play in the Olympics – the sport was tossed along with men’s baseball after the 2008 Beijing Games – knows exactly what wrestling stands to lose if the 2016 Rio Summer Games are its last.

“It’s hard to inspire athletes to get involved in a sport where they’re never going to go to that event that everyone watches,” said Mackin who is now in Ottawa studying to be a doctor.

The Olympic effect goes well beyond just inspiring kids and athletes. A nation’s entire sports structure is affected by whether a sport is in the Olympics or not, said Debbie Low, chief executive of the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario.

Participation, quality of coaching, access to high-level competition and sports funding – it all goes up for Olympic sports, she said.

With stakes so high it’s no wonder amateur athletes – who usually share a connection and empathy that crosses sporting disciplines – are eyeing each other warily, like animals gathered around a watering hole that’s drying up.

Athletes who have dedicated their lives to squash are annoyed with wrestlers who have done the very same thing and wrestlers point the finger at sports with even less visual appeal than theirs.

The only thing participants in the shortlisted sports can agree on is that it would have been better for them all if the executive committee had tossed modern pentathlon, as was widely expected, instead of wrestling.

Six-time national squash champion Shahier Razik of Toronto fears his sport’s longtime bid – which nearly succeeded for the London 2012 Games – will be undone by the surprising ouster of wrestling. “They’ll have to let wrestling back in,” he said. “It’s one of the original sports.”

The global backlash to the IOC’s move was enormous, with even the U.S. and Iran managing to find common cause. While wrestling embarked on a belated lobbying campaign, sports like karate, inline speed skating and squash have been trying for years to convince the IOC to show their sport some love.

Squash has moved to glass courts, a simplified scoring system, shorter games and introduced balls that television cameras can pick up at speeds exceeding 200 km/h. This was all to make the game more spectator-friendly.

Other sports have pushed different IOC buttons. Sport climbing and wakeboarding tout their appeal to a younger X Games-style audience, hoping to ride the same wave that fast-tracked freestyle ski and snowboard events into the Winter Games.

Wakeboarding has been around since the mid-1980s but the sport thinks the expansion of cable parks, where riders are towed on a fixed overhead line instead of behind a motorboat, has made them a better fit for the Olympics.

The combined bid to reintroduce women’s softball and men’s baseball is likely a no-hoper unless Major League Baseball agrees to send its players (as the NHL and NBA do) and commissioner Bud Selig has said already he won’t suspend the season to make that possible.

Wushu, the Chinese martial art made popular in Jet Li and Jackie Chan action movies, feels its time has come.

The only two Olympic sports that aren’t western- or European-based are judo and taekwondo and both were introduced as a result of an Asian Games. China assumed wushu would get the same nod because of the 2008 Beijing Games but the IOC went with BMX biking instead to appeal to a youth audience, Donnelly said.

The IOC feels it owes China but it also wants to appeal to youth audiences, drive up TV ratings and sponsorship dollars and deal with the uproar over wrestling, he said. “The Olympics are trying to please too many masters and mistresses at the moment.”

After the IOC’s meeting some athletes will be pleased, too. The rest, not so much.

Toronto Star - Kerry Gillespie, Sports Reporter

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