Squash has campaigned for its inclusion in the Olympic Games since Barcelona 1992 and, despite being one of the most popular sports in the world, with over 20 million people playing worldwide, it continues to be overlooked by the IOC (International Olympic Committee). Writer Alex Plimmer looks into why.
The sport applied this year for the eighth time in a row to be part of the world’s most prestigious sporting competition, along with 25 other sports, including other favourites baseball-softball and netball, and some more hopeful applicants, such as bridge, chess and tug-of-war, the latter last involved in the Games in 1920. Whilst it made the 8-sport shortlist, it was yet again disregarded in place of 5 other, arguably less deserving sports: baseball-softball, surfing, skateboarding, karate and sports climbing. With such a following in so many countries and such weak competition, it is a surprise to all involved in the sport and many others that squash has not yet been included.
It is widely acknowledged that for a sport to be included in the competition, winning an Olympic gold medal should be the pinnacle of an athlete’s career. Yet, every year, when plausible, popular sports are recommended to be added to the Games, another sport with more of an international profile is undeservedly added in their place. This was particularly apparent in the inclusion of golf as a stroke play tournament in the 2016 Olympics, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro. Although golf has an extensive global appeal and allows a large number of countries to stake their claim for a medal, the tournament will never be regarded by the sport’s fans in the same way as the four “majors” are. There are numerous other sports, on the other hand, with squash one of the most high profile, in which the Olympics would in fact be the tournament that players train hardest for and which would be the peak of any player’s career. It is, however, still usurped by less deserving or less popular sports.
Moreover, 26 countries are represented in the top 50 players in men’s and women’s squash and there are squash courts in 188 countries and territories around the world, so it cannot be accused of lacking global support and being included purely to improve the chances of a few countries. This should give it an advantage over a few of the other most likely sports to be considered, such as baseball and American football, as it will never be a foregone conclusion as to which countries will walk away with medals. This is particularly true in the men’s game, where 6 nations are represented in the top 8 players in the world.
Squash also gives an opportunity for smaller countries who would not usually win so many medals during the course of an Olympic Games to move themselves up the medal table as none of China, USA, Russia and, to an extent, Australia are known for their squash prowess. Instead, it would be countries such as Egypt, the UK, Colombia, France and Malaysia competing for the medal places.
On the other hand, as with any sport, there are some concerns about its suitability for inclusion, the primary being its capacity as a spectator sport. Unfortunately, squash has been unable to find a sufficient solution to this problem thus far. Due to the speed of play and the complexity of some of the rules, particularly about interferences during play – i.e. lets (where the point is replayed) and strokes (where the point is awarded to the player who is impeded) – those who have limited knowledge can often find the sport confusing to watch and therefore boring. There have, however, been significant changes, particularly for TV, to make the game much more understandable for viewers. For example, the ball is now white, rather than black, to make it more visible onscreen, and video replays and video referees have been introduced to make each decision clearer to the audience and to eliminate referee error. If squash continues to find ways to make squash more watchable to the untrained eye, then it could well remove one of its greatest obstacles in its fight for IOC recognition.
There is also a common belief among the global population, particularly in younger people, that squash is merely a sport for the older generation. The current squash community, however, would very much beg to differ. As in many sports, as each generation begins its decline, a new one comes to take its place. In the world of professional squash for instance, players who have dominated for the last five years, such as Amr Shabana and, to a much lesser extent, Nick Matthew and Gregory Gaultier, have begun to fade and are edging towards retirement, but the sport has been reinvigorated by the emergence of players such as current world number one Mohamed El Shorbagy, who will be followed closely in the next few years by rising talents like his brother Marwan, Fares Dessouki and Diego Elias. Furthermore, even in local leagues, the top end of club squash is increasingly becoming a younger man’s game, as squash continues to become one of the world’s most popular sports.
Despite any arguments thrown at the IOC every 4 years by those fighting for squash’s inclusion, however, it seemed almost inevitable that squash would again miss out on a seat at sport’s highest table in September, and may well do again next time around. For now, it must be content to be the best of the rest, the sport that never quite caught the world’s interest.