Christina Rees, MP and former Wales No.1, leads Commons debate on squash and the Olympics
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor
It’s not every day that squash is debated by the British parliament. But yesterday, while the US government chose (for the second time) to impeach a former Fordham University squash player, the hallowed halls of Westminster echoed to a lively and good humoured discussion about the game.
Christina Rees, the MP for Neath who represented Wales more than 100 times, continued her battle to get squash into the Olympics with a passionate speech in front of fellow MPs.
Christina returned my call today to explain that she secured a second House of Commons debate about squash to raise public awareness of the sport and to campaign on behalf of the game’s leading players, who are being deprived of the opportunity to compete in sport’s biggest jamboree.
She is also fighting on behalf of Welsh internationals Tesni Evans and Joel Makin, who are both in the world top 10.
Christina said: “If squash was in the Olympics both Joel and Tesni would be playing, representing Wales and our wonderful sport.
“I applied for the debate and sometimes you get them and sometimes you don’t. I just wanted to bring it up again and raise awareness on behalf of the game.
“It had nothing to do with complaining about other sports being selected instead of squash. That would just be sour grapes. I just want the IOC to know that we in squash will never give up trying.”
After holding the floor for 19 minutes, Christina enjoyed the response from sports minister Nigel Huddleston.
She added: “It was a very polite and gracious response and I was delighted to hear that Nigel and his family are squash players.”
The Minister, MP for mid-Worcestershire, admitted he was impressed by Christina’s sporting pedigree and her lifelong contribution to sport, and squash in particular. He declined the offer of a game but said he would be “very keen to receive some free coaching from a former Welsh Sport Female Coach Of The Year”.
He affirmed that the IOC Charter makes it clear that every Olympic sports body must be free from government interference.
Courtesy of Hansard, I am pleased to publish large extracts of Christina’s speech and the sports minister’s reply.
Christina Rees (Neath; Lab/Co-op)
This is the second time that I have secured a debate about squash in the Olympics. The first was in July 2016, when I made the case for squash to be included on the Olympic games programme. The reason I am before the House again is that unfortunately squash did not make the list of sports included in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, or the Paris Olympics scheduled for 2024. Nothing has changed in that respect.
What has changed is that my dear friend the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) is not responding on behalf of the Government, as she did in the July 2016 debate. We share a passion for sport and I am sure that she is watching today, so will Members please join me in sending her our very best wishes? I am sure the Minister will do a great job today, but he has big shoes to fill — no pressure.
My love of sport began when I was a child. I was very shy and did not speak in my primary schools. I got beaten up by some teenage girls when I was walking home on my last day in my junior school, and my mother decided that I needed toughening up, so she sent me to judo classes.
I found my voice — indeed, some would say that I have not stopped talking since — and I made many lifelong friends. I got my senior black belt first dan when I was 13 and my fourth dan in 1974. I won many Welsh and national titles. I was a member of the Great Britain youth squad that went to the Munich Olympics, and I retired from judo in 1975. In Cynffig Comprehensive School, I had the opportunity to play other sports and represented Wales schools in hockey, tennis and athletics. Sport gave me a focus and confidence and made me a team player. Some would say that I went to school only to play sport.
My love for squash began when I was supporting myself through university and had a job as a sports coach in the newly built Bridgend Recreation Centre near the village of Kenfig Hill in south Wales, where I was born and brought up. I was teaching sports in the main hall when I heard a thudding noise, so I went to investigate. I climbed some stairs up to a balcony and saw below me two men locked in a room with very strangely shaped rackets, hitting a little ball into submission. It was love at first sight — not the men, but the game — so I hired a racket, scrounged a squash ball and spent every spare minute on the squash court teaching myself to play.
The squash players at Bridgend Recreation Centre adopted me and I made the men’s team. I was invited by Squash Wales, the national governing body for squash in Wales, to the national trials for the Welsh ladies’ squad and got selected after playing squash for only six months. I went on to represent Wales more than 100 times, sometimes at No. 1 for the team. I won some national and international titles, including the Dutch Open, but my forte was losing in the final. I have lost count of how many times I have come second in national competitions.
Squash is a great game. It is dynamic, physically and mentally challenging, strategic, tactical—it is like chess on legs. It is a healthy sport for all ages. Squash shares some similarities with other racket sports, but it is the only racket sport where players share the same space. There are differences, too: for example, in common parlance “nick” means stealing, but in squash it is where the wall meets the floor. If someone hits the ball into the nick, it is irretrievable; it is the perfect shot. “Boast” usually means singing one’s own praises, but in squash it is a shot where someone hits the ball against the side wall on its way to the front wall, and that is a really deceptive shot.
A tin is usually something that holds baked beans, but in squash it is the line on the front wall of the court above which the ball must be hit. Tea is a drink, but in squash the T is a place in the centre of the court that players seek to dominate in order to control the rally. Performing squash movements without the ball is known as “ghosting”—I am doing it now, and with squash courts closed at present, I am doing a lot of ghosting in my living room.
Squash has given me so much: fun, fitness, lifelong friends and a job. When I retired in the early 1990s from international competition and had a squash sabbatical, I took up marathon running. In 2004, I called Squash Wales to try to track down an old friend. The director of coaching and development, Mike Workman, said, “Chris Rees, I haven’t heard from you for ten years. We need more women coaches, and there’s a coaching course tomorrow. I’ll put your name down.” I said to him, “Mike I am not a coach, I’m a player.” But I lost that argument, and every other argument, I think, when I went on to work for Mike at Squash Wales. I worked my way through the qualifications and am now a level 3 coach, tutor and assessor, and have become a Welsh national coach. I was honoured to receive the Sport Wales coach of the year award in 2008 — the only racket sports coach to receive that award so far.
One of the best experiences of my life was pulling on the red shirt and playing for Wales, representing my country, but it is wonderful to coach a youngster from beginner to playing for Wales, helping them develop into a confident, skilful, respectful and well-rounded player.
As part of the very successful Squash Wales junior development programme I encouraged children to take up squash, taking them through the squad system—if that was what they wanted—or simply helping them enjoy playing the game that I love.
I am proud that two players, products of the Squash Wales junior development programme, are now international stars: Tesni Evans from Prestatyn, aged 28, and Joel Makin from Aberdare, aged 26, are both ranked number nine in the January 2021 world rankings.
Children as young as age four take up squash, and there is a masters circuit for everyone aged over 35 to over 80. Competitions are held in many countries, and there are also the world and European championships. A few years ago, the Welsh team were the over-70’s world men’s champions. They were all skill, trickery and bandages, but not much movement on court. Sport is hard on the body’s joints, especially judo, marathon running and squash, and I have done all three. That is especially the case when there is a habit of over-training as I had and as I have now, and I thank my orthopaedic consultant Mr Chandratreya for looking after me and for keeping me going.
Squash is televised via state-of-the-art all-glass show courts, with glass floors and side door options. Squash is very cool. It is presented very differently on the professional tour from when I used to play. There is music, lighting and MCs.
We have super slow-mo replays, multi-camera angles, in-play stats, live web transmission and full match videos uploaded on demand. What other sport has had championships played in a stunning site next to the pyramids in Egypt, in New York’s Grand Central station, on the Bund in Shanghai and in many other innovative indoor and outdoor settings?
In 2005, London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic games. The sports for 2012 were announced and squash came top of the shortlisted sports to be included. At that time, James Willstrop and Nick Matthews of England were ranked world No. 1 and 2, so were potential gold and silver Olympic medallists. Jenny Duncalf and Laura Massaro of England were ranked world No. 2 and 3 — potential silver and bronze medallists. I must admit that our Welsh players were not quite as highly ranked but, as I said, Tesni and Joel are making great progress up the world rankings.
It was not expected that any places would be available among the then 28 maximum sports to be included in the London Olympics, but baseball and softball were taken out, so we thought that squash, being top of the shortlisted sports, would replace baseball or softball, but that did not happen, and London ran with only 26 sports. When Rio won the host bid in 2009 for the 2016 Olympics, the two vacant spots were filled by rugby sevens and golf. They are great sports, especially rugby — being Welsh, I would say that — but do they really fulfil the International Olympic Committee mantra that the Olympic games should be the paramount event of a sport?
The IOC subsequently decided that one sport would be removed from the 28 sports selected for the 2016 games to make room for a new sport in the 2020 games. Wrestling was removed, but then added back into a shortlist of eight. The list was then reduced to three sports: wrestling, baseball and softball, which were combined into one sport, and squash. In 2013, wrestling — not a new sport — was voted back in, although squash was, in fact, the only new sport on the shortlist.
Tokyo won the hosting rights for 2020 and persuaded the IOC that, as host, it could add two new sports. Originally, they were squash and baseball and softball combined, because they were the two on the shortlist, but Tokyo opened it up to other sports to bid for a place and selected a shortlist of eight from the 25 sports that had applied. In August 2015, each sport gave a presentation to the IOC, and Tokyo selected five sports, not including squash. They were baseball and softball combined, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing.
Paris will be the host city for the 2024 Olympic games. There are many excellent squash court venues in Paris that could be used, where glass show courts could be set up. Hon. Members can appreciate how devastated I was to discover that breakdancing, known as breaking, had been included by the IOC in the Paris games ahead of squash. The jury is still out on whether it is a sport or not, but including it in the Olympics ahead of our genuine sport is heartbreaking — do you get the pun there?
Since 1986, we have campaigned for squash to be in the Olympics and made some truly fantastic presentations, but the presentation for the Paris Olympics was the most ambitious ever. The WSF and the Professional Squash Association combined to launch “Squash Goes Gold”, a web and social media campaign. It was launched just before the 2018-19 PSA world championships, played inside Chicago’s Union Station. It built on the global growth of squash over the past decade and allowed players from all over the world to unite behind one common goal.
France’s top-ranked woman player, Camille Serme, who has won the British and the US opens, took part in the bid. France has also had two recent men’s world No. 1 players, Thierry Lincou and current professional Grégory Gaultier. As hon. Members can imagine, the opportunity to compete in the Olympics in their home country and in Camille’s home city, and possibly win a medal, would have been the pinnacle of their careers.
My old friend Andrew Shelley, chief executive of the WSF from 2010 to 2019, has worked in squash for over 40 years and has been involved in all the Olympic bids.
He says that he would not change one moment of his time working in squash, but that our non-selection for the Olympics is his greatest disappointment. Andrew was awarded the MBE for services to squash in the new year’s honours list. He is now creating a world squash library, and one day I hope there will be a special section in his library titled “Squash makes it to the Olympics.
Jahangir Khan, who is the greatest player of all time—six world titles, 10 British open titles, unbeaten for five and a half years in the early 1980s—as well as the former WSF president and current emeritus WSF president, has said,
“We have been running bids for so many years and these sports” — breaking, surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding — “were not in the queue and now they are. It’s really hard to understand”.
Malaysian female star Nicol David has said that she would give up her eight world squash titles for one Olympic gold medal, which shows just how much taking part in the Olympics means to squash players. Many politicians play squash: it is a great stress-buster. I do not have time to name them all today, so I will just mention my good friend Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, who is a very enthusiastic and accomplished squash player.
Why is it so important to get squash into the Olympics? There are many practical reasons, including increased funding, but the opportunity to showcase squash on the biggest sporting stage in the world, so that our fantastic players can be seen, is the main reason why we will not give up. I do not have any specific asks of the Minister, because I know he does not have power over the IOC.
He may be relieved to hear that, but if he could write to the IOC supporting squash’s bid to be in the next Olympics and increase funding for a sport that has to fight for every penny, I would be grateful. I am not sure what sports the Minister plays, but if he plays squash, I will be his coach. If he does not play squash and wants to take it up, I will teach him how to play. Any support we can have from the Minister to get squash into the Olympics, I would be really grateful for.
The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
It is right that the decision to add any new sport to the Olympic programme is a matter for the International Olympic Committee to consider. The hon. Lady outlined the process very well. It would not be appropriate for me or the British Government, or indeed any national Government, to become involved in that process, or to lobby for any particular sport to be included.
But please do not interpret, or misinterpret, that comment as a lack of enthusiasm or interest. It is a statement of fact because, according to the Olympic charter, every national Olympic committee must be free from Government interference. Hence, it would not be appropriate or helpful for me to comment further on the inclusion process. As I say, please do not interpret that as a lack of enthusiasm; should squash be included in the Olympics, I would embrace that decision and be very happy indeed.
Of course, it is open to the relevant national governing body of a sport to make a case for its inclusion, as indeed it has, along with the appropriate world governing body. I understand that squash may be under consideration for Olympic games beyond Paris 2024, so we might see it in Los Angeles.
Many sports quite rightly aspire to being included in the Olympic programme; there is a strong incentive for them to be included. We are now just six months away from the rescheduled Tokyo games, which I am sure will be a wonderful spectacle for athletes and fans alike as we emerge from the pandemic.
I can well understand why globally renowned sports such as squash would wish to be included in this wonderful festival of sport, reaching a global audience of billions and inspiring audiences at home and abroad.
Squash has embraced innovation in recent years, as the hon. Lady outlined in detail, to make it a more televisual sport and also to put it in the lead in terms of gender parity, along with many other racket sports, such as tennis. I am very proud to say that my daughter is a great and avid fan of squash as well.
I know that the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 will provide a fantastic opportunity to showcase squash on the global stage for millions of people, because, of course, squash is included in the Commonwealth Games and the Commonwealth Games being held in the UK again in 2022 gives us a wonderful chance to promote the sport domestically, while showcasing once again the UK’s ability to host major international sporting events.
A full report of the debate is published here by Hansard.