Friday, April 19, 2024

Bob Kingsley: How the hardball politics of US Squash tinned our Olympic bid

By BOB KINGSLEY – Squash Mad Correspondent

Some years ago I wrote an article for Squash Mad about how “back in the day” the United States Squash Racquets Association (USSRA) killed the Olympic dream. This article explains how we’re even further from that dream today.

It shows how squash in the US was led, kicking and screaming, into the Olympic arena and then abandoned there. When the rest of the squash world picked up the baton the US had dropped, it ran in the wrong direction and continues to do so …

During the late 1980s and early 90s, the stodgy old blue-blazered WASPs on the Main Line in Philadelphia that governed squash were scrambling to maintain control of their game.

As the world shrank, so did the dominance of the American version of squash, played not only with a very different ball, but in a smaller court with different rules.

Squash played in Philadelphia in 1980 when compared with squash in London shared all the similarities of baseball and cricket, or the Corvette and the MG. Sharing the game in name-only with the British version, US hardball squash (as it was known), was being pressed into extinction by the rising tide of play around the British Empire in the international version of the game we see today.

The American model of squash began in the northeastern US in exclusive private clubs, which morphed into the local prep schools and then the private universities those elite New England families founded, attended and controlled. 100-years later, as the college squash programs in the 1980s began to view the rest of the world through the lens of squash, what they saw was major change coming. The influx of foreign students and immigrants brought with them the squash game played everywhere else in the world but here.

In the late 70s and into the 80s, some notable squash talent from Pakistan, Australia and elsewhere around the British Commonwealth began to notice the professional American hardball squash tour events and their corresponding prize monies and opportunities for green cards.

It became painfully apparent, quite quickly, that the American squash athlete was ill-prepared for competition with their foreign counterparts, not only in the British version of the game, but in defending their own version as well.

As some top-level American squash player ass was kicked by prominent foreign players, it was an embarrassment that publicly showcased the overall degree of athleticism and endurance requirements that separated the two games and its participants.

The top foreign players could play and win at the American game at the very highest levels while the American players that played the British game abroad were summarily defeated in their efforts. It took many years for an American player to be remotely competitive in the international version of the game.

US college teams and their coaches were among the first to make the case to the USSRA about fostering and promoting what was becoming known as the “international” version of the game that up until then had been all but ignored here in the States.

Resistance was fierce, but leadership knew they had to at least pay lip-service to the game.

For several years the USSRA did to squash what the USA had earlier done to her black citizens, promoting a policy of separate-but-equal status for both versions of the game. That strategy was in retrospect wrong-headed, only prolonging the inevitable.

The Americans held on to the game they had created with the same zeal and probably for many of the same differences in philosophy that had separated the colonists from the monarchy some two-hundred years earlier.

Finally, seeing the writing all over the squash court wall, membership in the US Olympic family of sports was sought after and quickly approved in the late 1980s. Because no other sport in history had been admitted to the United State Olympic Committee, (USOC), on a first-round application, it shocked the blue-bloods into a reality check when squash became the first sport to do so.

On the one hand, the USSRA was now officially recognized as the national governing body, (NGB), of the sport in the US, but on the other, it was clear that if squash was ever going to find an Olympic audience, it would be played with the British ball. Separate but equal squash gave way to integration and a single game.

The USSRA was the first squash NGB in the world to gain admittance to our own country’s national Olympic committee. Once this happened, all junior players began aspiring to Olympic dreams. Correspondingly, college programs quickly changed over to the British version of the game as did the prep schools behind them.

For the first time in the history of squash in the US, there was a flicker of hope for Olympic participation that transcended the heretofore reality of a competitive squash career ending in college.

USSRA membership in the USOC opened up all kinds of new roles for our athletes, coaches and our administration. We participated in USOC meetings, and consulted on governance and decision making councils and forums. We began to forge personal relationships with fellow administrators, coaches, and athletes, across sports disciplines.

Former IOC boss Thomas Bach meets squash players during the PanAm Games in Toronto in 2015

We used the Olympic training center and exposed athletes and coaches to the possibilities of becoming Olympians. We trained together, bunked together, ate together and celebrated together. We cultivated friendships. It is within the intricacies of these personal relationships that core decision-making about a sports inclusion or exclusion is made.

Not enough effort since then was or has been made to flesh-out those kinds of relationships.

Quite frankly, the NGBs elsewhere around the world had done a less than stellar job of making similar in-roads and relationships within their own spheres of influence.

While the US was busy forming the Federacion Pan Americana de Squash and meeting with then Internal Olympic Committee, (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch in Havana at the Pan American Games in 1991, our brethren across the pond were glad to take our International Squash Rackets Federation, (ISRF) dues monies, (that was unfairly accessed against the number of courts we had that weren’t even suitable for that version of the game), while cutting us out of any major decision making roles in the organisation.

The USSRA was to the ISRF what the USA was to NATO; the major funder while enjoying the least benefit and even less gratitude. The British Empire was as excited about Olympic inclusion as were their waspy cousins on this side of the pond. It seems that blue-blood is not only thicker than water, but survives the currents of the North Atlantic.

Squash is a wonderfully deep and dynamic display of athletic poetry that speaks for itself. Selling and then re-selling the attributes of the game is not how we gain entry to the Olympic stage. We do so by forging relationships and fitting our methods and efforts of doing so into the good-old-boy network as it currently exists, precisely how it has been done since time in memoriam.

Some may find that reality an indictment of the unfairness of the system, or a relic of times past, but it is exactly what it has always been and continues to be the way that things work. Because many feel this reality to be unfair, unjust and just plain wrong, they have also incorrectly concluded that this is not the way it is, dismissing this assessment as an era we have grown out of. It is a mistaken notion to confuse the world for what one would like it to be as compared to what it actually is.

New York Yankees baseball team owner George Steinbrenner was the USOC Vice President in 1989. At an Olympic meeting I was attending in Houston, I approached Steinbrenner to introduce myself. I did this about 30 seconds before a very large meeting of all USOC members was about to take place with Steinbrenner presiding.

Hundreds of people were seated in a large auditorium, waiting on Steinbrenner while he and I stood outside of the room talking. When I told him I was representing the sport of squash, he became very animated and immediately asked me if I knew a certain prominent squash player.

I told him that I did, and with that he launched into a story about how he and this other fellow were room-mates in boarding school and how one night he had stolen this guy’s car in order to go and see his girlfriend. Steinbrenner wouldn’t forget squash because of his own history and I was lucky enough to find and rekindle that connection.

One can’t find these kinds of important things unless you go and look for them. Steinbrenner kept several hundred, super-high profile sports executives waiting while he relived his college days with me and connecting squash with that positive time in his life. That made a difference.

At a USOC meeting in San Diego, a colleague and I were out to eat and I noticed the two representatives of another very prominent NGB dining a few tables away. We sent over drinks and in a few moments we were all dining together. That night we closed the hotel bar with them and we positively influenced some of the most important people in the USOC hierarchy, not at a round-table discussion at 10AM, but at a bar at 2 in the morning.

Unless you are up and about at the end of a night of festivities, you won’t know what might have happened while you were sleeping and only learn about it second-hand over breakfast…

On one very memorable late night at an IOC meeting which shall remain a mystery, the President of a national Olympic federation was just tipsy enough to tell some of the most inappropriate jokes I have ever heard. At breakfast the next morning I made it clear to this person that their indiscretion was safe with me. Sometimes the secrets you hold find you allies in the strangest of places.

Squash at the 2019 Pan-Am Games in Lima, Peru

And finally, in the greatest of change-of-fate situations I have ever been a part of, I traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, over Easter week. I was there to meet with the Pan American Games organisers in Mar del Plata regarding negotiations that might hopefully afford squash a slot in the slate of events that were to be contested in the 1995 Pan Am Games.

I rented a car and began the 250 mile drive south to Mar del Plata. While still in Buenos Aries, I was stopped by the local police and ultimately extorted for $300 by a corrupt police captain. After finally arriving in Mar del Plata, I informed my hosts of what had happened. Mortified and embarrassed by my experience, all hell broke loose as the local officials began damage control and the effort to find this corrupt police officer.

Mar del Plata game organizers were under no obligation to host squash at the Pan Am games in 1995. They did have discretion to include sports not yet on the Olympic docket but member sports that had not yet been contested. Squash fit that latter category, so we were really going begging.

Anticipating that the proper stimulus to achieve such an undertaking would involve money, influence and equipment, I came armed with all three. The USSRA was prepared to deliver a state-of-the-art glass exhibition squash court to the venue. In negotiating for this, I was authorised to offer them ownership of the court after the games were completed, and if I thought it necessary to make the deal, also offer them up to $10,000.

As the news of my extortion by the police became a national story, my hosts were in a panic about the public relations aspect of this and its effect on sponsorship, attendance, etc. I told my hosts that it would be a shame if word of this kind of treatment to foreigners visiting became widely known. Just like that, we had a deal for squash to participate. We would ultimately bring the exhibition court, but we would also take it home and no money every changed hands. You need to find success in situations when you think you have met with failure.

US squash was in the final stages of cementing those painstaking relationships and alliances that formed the complicated and patently unfair and unorthodox method of selecting sports for Olympic inclusion. Our efforts were short-circuited because if we had continued to be successful, the existing power-base of the US squash leadership would have shifted into obsolescence.

That aside, the way in which we achieved what we did is the point of this missive and to state in plain language that the way to get things done is to be able to identify systems, associations, relationships and individuals as flawed as they may be, not as you wish that they were, but as they are.

If you can do this, then you tailor yourself and your strategy into that reality instead of trying to re-wire those you are trying to influence in order for them to fit your version. In my observations, this is what today’s squash leadership is doing and, in case some haven’t noticed, it isn’t working.

Squash is a game resplendent with nuance, a game that can be played in a wild variety of ways all producing success when done well.

For a group of people who know this so thoroughly as it applies to the game, it is breathtaking to see that when that same level of nuance and creativity is the key to our sport’s success in gaining Olympic participation, that lesson meets with a failed grade.

If a strategy of drop-and-lob is winning, the wise player keeps doing it until it doesn’t. The creative fool changes what works for what is intriguing and then suffers the loss clueless.

Related article: How American Excess Killed The Olympic Dream, by Bob Kingsley

COMMENT: How America killed the Olympic dream


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