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Sunday, May 16, 2021

COMMENT: How America killed the Olympic dream

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How American excess killed the Olympic dream

By BOB KINGSLEY

SQUASH is feeling sorry for itself after the IOC again rejected the sport’s application for a place on the 2020 Olympic Games programme. The sympathetic responses bear a familiar look.

“Crossing our fingers for 2020”…“So very close for 2016”…“Pretty close in 2012…”“Such an effort in 2008…”,“Bad luck in 2004.”

All emotive stuff, but let’s stop the sympathy and get something straight. Squash is not on the program of the Olympics today, largely because key people in the sport’s US leadership did not want it there 20-plus years ago.

First, a little background.

In 1988, I was hired as the Associate Director of the United States Squash Racquets Association, (USSRA.) My main goal was to pursue US Olympic Committee, (USOC) membership for the USSRA, (now US Squash.)

Leadership in our organisation was so convinced that our initial membership application would be rejected that I was sent alone, with less than six months on the job, to the USOC membership review meeting in Houston.

When I left that meeting, having secured our membership in the first round, (something rarely accomplished), a very senior USOC staff member walked me out of the room, put his arm around my shoulder and whispered to me in a hallway crowded with other applicants, “Where in the hell have you people been?”

From the beginning, it seems we were perceived as being very late to Olympic affiliation from those inside the USOC. Over the next few years, we received monies and services from the USOC that funded elite coaching, elite training and allowed for the free use of the United States Olympic Training Center, (USOTC) in Colorado Springs where we sent coaches and players alike.

We even held one of our Executive Committee meetings at the USOTC where then USOC Executive Director Harvey Schiller (pictured right) addressed our group and encouraged our quick ascent in the organization. The USOTC went so far as to offer us free office space to relocate our national headquarters onto the Colorado Springs campus.

I knew a political problem was brewing when the leadership of the USSRA refused that invitation and I began to realise that my plight, my mission might be a fool’s errand.

A short history lesson will be helpful.

In the late 1980s, squash in the US was struggling to maintain two versions of the game; one that was played only in the States (hardball) and the other, mainstream version played throughout the rest of the world. Many in US squash leadership were firmly ensconced in supporting, preserving and favouring the old and dying US-only version of the game.

The fear was that “the great unwashed” as one of them put it, would take over the mainstream version of the sport and they would over-run and outnumber the traditional ivy league, prep school, blue-blood, country club types and replace them with public-school, blue-collar, beer-drinking hooligans of unverified lineage.

The old-guard leadership sensed that they would not only lose their US-only version of the sport, but their control of it as well because Olympic participation would surely be played using the mainstream version of the game.

When I was handed my resignation, the reality and the magnitude of the level of resistance came clearly into focus.

Simultaneously, a large and vocal segment of the squash community was demanding the switch to the rest-of-the-world version of the game and the leadership of US Squash had to placate that growing voice.

By dispatching one man to do what the entire organisation should have been committed to doing, it created the illusion that US Squash was forward thinking. That was not the case. Some in leadership positions hoped that by under-staffing and under-committing to the Olympic effort, it would end in futility, frustration and failure, thereby preserving their hold on the US-only version of the sport.

The old-guard of squash was counting on the failure of our efforts towards the Olympics. The problem was, nobody clued me and my small band of heretics into this plot and our efforts were making unprecedented progress on a very fast track.

From our initial membership with the USOC in 1988 until my departure in 1991, I spent most of my time on the road and had gathered a groundswell of support from the family of Olympic sports organisations.

During this same time, many more of the “great unwashed”, had also entered the ranks of the US squash community, further rankling the squash elites.

I attended USOC, International Olympic Committee, (IOC) and International Squash Rackets Federation, (ISRF) functions representing the interests of Olympic participation for squash.

We formed the Associacion Pan Americana de Squash and began organizing international competitions throughout the Americas in support of the Pan American games having squash on their program. Unfortunately those interests were at odds with the old guard of US squash because we were, again, continuing to be unexpectedly successful.

Our efforts proved to be 20 some years too early. The elitist relics, born in the age of antiquity that controlled US squash in the late 80’s and into the 90’s could see clearly into the future, and what they saw was their relevance waning.

In 1991, I met personally with then IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch (pictured below) at the Pan American games in Havana and he was extremely supportive. At last, all of the political, social, formal and informal relationships were in place for squash to be accepted into the inner circle of the Olympic movement.

As Samaranch said: “The USOC is the flagship of all (national Olympic committees)”, and at that moment in time, we were very much in favour with the IOC and the USOC.

However, the political power of an old guard of squash elitists spanning nearly 100 years out-ranked and out-weighed a naive group of pro-Olympic squash advocates with a single vision that blinded them to the political reality that was far stronger and more ruthless than imagined.

When I was handed my resignation, the reality and the magnitude of the level of resistance came clearly into focus.

Shortly after my departure, other key players in the movement were summarily dismissed as well. Once that momentum, that intricate framework of personal, professional, probable and improbable relationships were left unattended, the situation would crumble and the winding road so painstakingly built would revert but to a faded path.

The conditions of that era are gone. The momentum and impact of a strong first impression has but a single shot. The opportunities we enjoyed in the 80s and 90s are not able to be recreated. The perfect storm for squash had, I fear, but one chance. The deal-making and networking we plied and perfected to make our inroads are opportunities forever lost.

Our efforts proved to be 20 some years too early. The elitist relics, born in the age of antiquity that controlled US squash in the late 80’s and into the 90’s could see clearly into the future, and what they saw was their relevance waning.

I am saddened to say that we failed to have squash included into the family of contested sports in an Olympic program not because the game wasn’t worthy of such status, but because of a culture of small mindedness that would sink a sport in order to protect a pedigree.

Bob Kingsley is the former Associate Director of the USSRA, (now US Squash) from 1988 until 1991. Nowadays, he owns a business called King Enterprises in upstate, NY. They provide “back office” services to attorneys, municipalities and insurance carriers with investigative support and trial preparation. Bob is also the teaching professional at the Pennsylvania Avenue Squash Club in Binghamton, NY.

© 2012 All Rights Reserved, Robert T. Kingsley

 

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10 Comments

  1. What a very sad story. Maybe it’s time to stop dreaming about the Olympics and focus on developing the sport. Then one day maybe the IOC will come to us and say – Hey, we really would appreciate if you joined in!
    Wouldn’t that be nice?

  2. thanks for posting this Alan.

    If this is all true it underlines what many have suspected. that the US Olympic Committee have no interest in squash. we obviously need to win them over first as we may never get voted into the Olympics without their support. the US is too important on the Olympic stage. few of my prior blog articles on Squash and the Olympics explore why that is. thank you Mr Kingsley for making this public, I am sure it was not easy to do.

    side note: yesterday the IOC met to discuss the sports program…very interested to hear what came out of that.

  3. Thanks very much for that Bob – an interesting insight. I’m afraid that attitude, or something like it still persists to this day in the UK too, probably everywhere, although I hope (and think) rather less in squash.

    Let’s also hope the IOC has a change of heart, as seems very possible and try and make sure we continue to look our best until a decision is made.

    I agree, Peter, work should continue on improving the sport and addressing the problems it presents to wider audiences, but with due diligence and thought given to the impression we are making at the moment, still a crucial time for squash.

  4. I may be wrong but I don’t think the USOC has done anything but help us. I was the US Squash delegate to the USOC in the late nineties and the folks at Colorado Springs were nothing except helpful – and made us feel a part of the family.
    I think the point Bob is making is that he was undermined by people within the Squash community that felt that their highbrow and ‘pure’ elite community might be threatened if Hardball gave way to the ‘common’ game of ‘softball’ or international Squash.
    Bob?
    As it happens we despite growth in the US most of that growth has been among the blue blood communities and we are still a long way from where we want to be in terms of Squash being a mainstream sport where blue collar, white collar, professionals, private and public are seen in our country – theoretically the greatest melting pot in the world. E pluribus –
    Pluribus? What about the ‘unum?’

    • Correct Richard, the USOC was very welcoming, very cooperative, could not have been more helpful. As I said, they asked what had taken us so long and even offered free office space at the Colorado Springs training center, once we were members.

      The dynamics of the hardball v softball thing was also in play back then, but apart from that, the old-guard not only saw preserving hardball as a quest, they also saw the Olympic bid as impossible when it wasn’t.

      Little known fact. Back before the USOTC was refurbished, there were actually two singles, hardball squash courts on campus!! For a long time, the USSRA didn’t even know it.

  5. How sad! Thanks for sharing this Bob. Fortunately US Squash is now a different animal and while I personally feel that we need to focus more on spreading the game to Main Street, the current administration has shown terrific leadership In matters such as equal prize money for women and development of national and regional programs. I may not always agree with the methods, but I think we are fighting the same fight in the main. I will say that I don’t think I would have been encouraged to attend USOC if it hadn’t been for Craig Brand who also fostered the conferences that produced the player and coach Competencies documents which were the most advanced in the world at the time – but have sadly fallen out of use and we wouldn’t have gotten here at all were it not for Tom and Hazel Jones’s pioneering determination.

    • Thank you for those kind words Richard. We worked as closely as we could with Bob Kingsley and I was glad that I was able to acknowledge Bob’s contribution when we (Tom and I) were inducted into the US Squash Hall of Fame. I completely agree that the USOC was VERY supportive of squash at the time. I’ll always wonder what would have happened had squash moved its headquarters into the free space that was offered at the training center in Colorado Springs. I think proximity to the USOC and the other NGBs that were headquartered there would have made a world of difference. Alas, we’ll never know for sure.

      • You’ll perhaps recall Hazel, when they, (USOC) made that offer for us to move to the campus, I made the case to USSRA leadership that I should go out there and at least establish a satellite presence.

        Additionally, the Colorado Sports Authority wanted us out there and offered services as well. I think Tom Jones was with me on that trip when we meet with those folks.

  6. While this is certainly a plausible account, Bob, absent personalities and specific policy decisions it seems (to me) a bit unconvincing. I’m sure that you’re correct that many in the squash establishment hoped to maintain the private-clubby WASPy nature of the game, but you’d have to show some evidence that resistance to soft-ball, and consequently, in your account, to the Olympic inclusion of squash, was based on a fear that the hoi polloi would pour into the sport. I think it possible that, gentleman as you are, you don’t want to go into specifics for fear of offending still active participants in the governance of the game. Nonetheless you’d have to be more specific to convince me that this was how it played.

    Speaking for myself (someone with no influence) I opposed the softball in the college game for two reasons.
    1. I didn’t think it as much fun to play or watch. There was considerable evidence that many countries had experienced a boom and bust- adults were leaving squash in softball playing countries, whereas in the U.S. we were showing steady growth. I thought hardball was more addictive, like golf and tennis, and that adults would be less likely to shift away to other sports. I’ve seen nothing in the past 20 years to change my mind about that- as an adult game hardball doubles has grown, but softball singles slowed. Let’s face it, hardball doubles will never become a blue-collar game- courts are simply too expensive.
    It is true though, that the Professional softball game, mostly due to racket technology but also due to the scoring and lower tin has become more entertaining- in effect much more like hardball, so I was wrong there.

    2. I thought the college game would be harder to develop when colleges had to invest money in new facilities. At one coaches meeting I pointed out that Columbia was an Ivy League school in NYC, with courts and an international student body, but that they had never fielded a Varsity team. How much less likely would it be, I asked, that they would establish an official team if they had to build new courts. Here I was obviously dead wrong, although it has in no way been made clear to me that the addition of new college squads is actually attributable to the ball change- I think a group of dynamic and entrepreneurial coaches take most of the credit.
    In a partial defense of my original position (wrong in the main as I have admitted it to be), my own college, Wesleyan, only built new courts because they were replacing the whole gym anyway, and they went from 14 to 8. The squads are far smaller now- hardly good for the growth of the game.

    That I held these positions is, of course, no evidence that those with real say didn’t in fact conflate the softball and the many-headed- it just suggests that it’s possible to have preferred hardball from less exclusionary motives. It’s not impossible that, as you say, the USSRA wasn’t enthused about squash in the Olympics because it wouldn’t have been the version the U.S. played. That makes sense on the face of it. To argue additionally that the Olympic movement was deliberately undermined by those who feared the social consequences of the sofball requires more evidence.

    Cheers, Sasha

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