As top golfers avoid Rio, Olympic ideals come under the microscope
By Alan Thatcher, Squash Mad Editor
James Willstrop wrote another impassioned plea for squash to be included in the Olympic Games after Rory McIlroy became the latest golfer to announce that he would not be competing in the Rio Games next month.
Willstrop’s Blog, circulated by The Guardian Online, highlighted the huge contrasts between the world’s leading golfers and squash players.
While squash players hone their swing inside a concrete box, and occasionally one made of glass, they do so with their lungs bursting for air in one of the most brutal sports invented by mankind, and they do so for limited financial rewards. Top golfers, meanwhile, enjoy the open air and a rarified kind of oxygen that breathes enormous riches into the upper echelons of the sport.
You don’t need a business degree to understand the differences in sponsorship revenues driven by hours of worldwide TV coverage for all of golf’s Major events, and compare those figures to the cash available in squash.
The Olympic Games golf event is not, and clearly never will be, one of their sport’s Majors. With golfers appearing to be diffident about honouring the Rio Games with their presence, squash players have once again gone on record to admit that they would crawl over broken glass to play in the Olympics.
McIlroy, commenting on his decision to snub the Olympics ahead of his recent appearance in The Open Golf Championship in Troon, Scotland, revealed that he had no such feelings.
He said: “I did not take up golf to promote the sport.” He also confirmed that he looked forward to watching the Olympics on TV, but would not be tuning in to the golf. “I will only be watching the sports that matter,” he said.
Honest words from McIlroy to defend his position, but a statement in total contrast to the evangelical zeal of squash players who feel cheated at being repeatedly denied the opportunity to win an Olympic medal.
Malaysia’s Nicol David has gone on record many times to claim that she would happily swap all eight of her world titles for just one Olympic gold.
I have written this many times before, but let’s examine the real reasons why golf and rugby sevens were chosen as Olympic sports ahead of squash.
The IOC admitted up front that the decision was a commercial one. Rugby sevens will fill the main Olympic stadium for three or four days ahead of the track and field, yielding increased ticket revenue, and golf will generate sponsorship and TV coverage in the world’s biggest commercial market, the United States.
When that decision was taken in 2009, Tiger Woods was among the world’s most popular sportsmen and his announcement that he would support golf being an Olympic sport was a key reason for the events that unfolded.
Absorb, if you can, this simple fact: at that time, TV viewing figures in America almost doubled in any tournament that Tiger Woods chose to play.
His name, linked to significant revenues to the IOC from TV advertising and sponsorship, thus became a massive financial vehicle, barging its way through any debates on the merits of squash.
A few months later, that financial bubble burst when news emerged of Tiger’s colourful social life. He has not been the same player since. Nor has his value to sponsors.
I have always wondered how the IOC would have acted, and how squash’s fortunes may have fared, had the Tiger Woods expose occurred 12 months earlier.
With squash promoted successfully in the last Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and the Pan-American Games in Toronto (and to a slightly lesser extent in the Asian Games in Japan) the sport hoped that this international exposure would help the case for a place in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
However, our hopes were dashed once again as we failed to make the cut and were not included on an additional list of five new sports being added to the 2020 programme at the suggestion of the Japanese organisers.
Most of the sports put forward by the Japanese were designed to appeal to younger people. Squash, somehow, has to get its head round another simple truth. Squash is a game for young people (all “games” are, really, when you come to think of it) but demographics show that the game is most popular among those aged 45 and above.
Encouraging young people to take up any sport is becoming increasingly harder with so many children enjoying most of their leisure time attached to one form of electronic device or another. Squash is up against every other sport in competing for an ever-shortening attention span.
Despite the London Olympics costing British taxpayers more than nine billion pounds, fewer people are playing sport in the UK now than they were before 2012.
So, if you can’t even massage the figures with that kind of investment, what hope do smaller sports have of getting noticed, whether it’s at grass-roots level or trying to impress an IOC management team who have invited you to submit a bid that will cost a million dollars that you don’t have lying around in spare change.
Many nations are now stepping back from the idea of bidding to stage an Olympic Games because of the enormous costs involved. The new mayor of Rome has ended the city’s interest in bidding for the 2024 event for this very reason, leaving Los Angeles as the most likely host.
Once again the IOC’s primary sponsors and TV partners, most of whom are based in the USA, will no doubt be in a strong position to influence the voting on which sports will be present. It would be foolish, and a little naive, to imagine otherwise.
As predicted in the squash novel, Breaking Glass, the streets of Rio have been full of demonstrations as the local population have told the Brazilian government that the money spent on hosting the football World Cup in 2014, and now this year’s Olympics, would have been better spent on health care, education, employment, transport and fighting crime.
There have also been the usual fears of venues and infrastructure not being completed on time. And the the thing the golfers didn’t tell you? They were not too keen on the quality of the course constructed in Brazil.
The Olympics almost made Montreal bankrupt. And I wonder how many of the Olympic venues from Athens, Sydney and Beijing are still in use today.
Despite the inclusion of squash certain to be a moderately cheap addition to any Olympic programme, the sport’s bid for an Olympic place has turned into nothing more than a roadshow of rejection.
Before we allow that rejection to make us feel too depressed about our chances of ever getting not the Olympics, perhaps we need to counsel the opinions of some of the squash players who told their national federations that they were not too keen to play in the Men’s World Team Championship in Egypt at the back end of last year.
In the end, the event was cancelled because of security fears expressed by a number of nations, but I do know that a handful of players were slightly reluctant to travel after a busy tournament schedule, and the fact that they were adding to their workload for little or no financial benefit. Is that so different from the words uttered recently by Rory McIlroy and the other top golfers who chose not to go to Rio?
Postponing the Women’s World Championship in Kuala Lumpur also sent out a rather negative message about squash, thanks to an incompetent marketing agency who had failed to find any sponsors, at a time when we should have been beaming fantastic images around the world of our leading players providing the kind of sporting drama that we hoped would be gracing an Olympic venue some time in the near future.
A bitter row erupted between the PSA and WSF over the management of future Olympic bids, with the PSA Tour keen to stress the development of their tournament presentation and TV coverage in recent years.
The WSF came under attack for failing to retain the services of a major lobbying agency, Vero Communications, founded by Mike Lee, one of the most successful operators in his field. He worked on the delivery of the 2012 Games to London, the 2016 event to Rio, and the surprise bid to host the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar.
A former media director of the English Premier League and the European football federation (UEFA) he is one of the best-connected individuals in the corridors of power in sport.
When he was released by the World Squash Federation, WSF president Narayana Ramachandran took charge of the bid himself. Vero, meanwhile, were snapped up by surfing, who became one of the sports put forward by Japan to compete in Tokyo alongside baseball-softball, sport climbing, karate and skateboarding. He had also led the bid for Olympic recognition by rugby sevens.
But squash, disastrously, let him go.
Our leading squash players have every right to feel aggrieved by the ambivalence of the world’s top golfers towards an Olympic appearance, but this whole “should I stay or should I go?” tee-time drama was played out against a backdrop of a more sinister nature.
Russia, which played a massive role in securing the return of wrestling to the Olympic fold, thereby trashing another deserved bid by squash, has been exposed for wholesale corruption in connection with drug-testing and the state-sponsored tampering of evidence.
With doping of Russian athletes and all kinds of dirty tricks designed to avoid detection apparently taking place on an industrial scale, whistleblowers finally exposed this sordid mess.
However, the IOC stepped back from a wholesale ban on Russian athletes competing in Rio after promising to put in place a number of rigorous tests for every athlete nominated to compete in Brazil.
With cycling, athletics, weightlifting and numerous other Olympic disciplines riddled with drug-taking offences down the years, perhaps it’s time the squash community asked itself what kind of Olympic Games we would like to be part of.
COMMENT: What are your views on squash and the Olympics? Feel free to comment below.