Few, if any benefits would accrue from a place at the tainted top table
COMMENT: By A Squash Professional
On the eve of the 2016 Olympic Games, with the event already mired in the usual allegations of crime, corruption and drug-related controversy, a former professional squash player, now a leading coach, debates whether squash needs to keep bidding for a place at this tainted top table after the painful rejection of our hopes to be involved in London, Rio and Tokyo.
It is a fascinating, well-reasoned article and we look forward to readers joining the debate and commenting below.
WITH the Rio Olympics just a day away and the IOC’s recent announcement that there will be five new sports added to the Tokyo 2020 Games, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the ongoing saga that is squash and the Olympics.
I have to admit that I find it impossible to understand the logic and inner workings of the IOC. I also find it hard to understand the continued show of outrage from the squash community, particularly on social media, when a decision like this is made.
Those who have closely followed the IOC’s process for determining the sports that will be included in Tokyo would have already known that the decision to shortlist these sports was made a couple of months ago and their acceptance into the 2020 Games was widely expected to be a formality. And if you have followed the fortunes of squash’s bid to gain acceptance into the Olympics since its first attempt back in 2005, you would also be aware that trying to predict the actions of the IOC is nothing short of a guessing game.
Before I continue I should stress that despite my scepticism in relation to the IOC as an organisation, I am absolutely pro-Olympics. I will be watching the Rio Games with almost religious devotion. Despite living in the UK, I will be experiencing a form of self-imposed jetlag over the next 16 days as I attempt to adapt to Brazilian time in order to maximise the amount of coverage I can watch.
Despite all this I have regularly found myself asking “does squash really need the Olympics?” To some, the answer to this is obvious. Olympic inclusion would bring greater exposure to the sport, leading to increased awareness around the world, with additional sponsorship inevitably flowing into the sport from corporations desperate to take advantage, creating greater prize money for events at all levels, etc.
But has anyone ever taken the time to consider whether this is actually what would happen? Much like the proven fallacy that hosting the Olympics automatically creates a lasting legacy of increased sports participation, which multiple studies have now shown to be wildly optimistic and equally untrue, I fear the same may apply to being part of the Olympics.
Unfortunately it’s impossible to know for certain but there are some interesting case studies that we can consider. For starters, does anyone really believe that Archery, Modern Pentathlon or Taekwondo (apologies to those sports for picking you at random!) have thriving World Tours with lucrative prize funds and hundreds, if not thousands, of professional athletes competing for world-wide recognition and fame?
A study by the BBC back in 2014 published the prize money at World Championships (or equivalent level events) in 51 sports. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29665693. Surprisingly, very few could match the £28,600 on offer to the Men’s World Squash Champion that year. Two of the sports I’ve already mentioned, Modern Pentathlon and Taekwondo, offered no prize money at their World Championships and only £3,800 and £3,100 for their respective World Cup (Modern Pentathlon) and Grand Prix Series (Taekwondo) winners.
Even the most high-profile of all Olympic sports, Athletics, offers only £38,000 for becoming World Champion. It’s worth noting that there are 47 different events in Athletics so their total prize fund will be considerably higher than squash.
The next obvious reason for wanting to snub the Olympics is the seemingly inevitable level of corruption it would bring. To the best of my knowledge, and excluding the occasional ban for recreational drugs, squash is relatively clean in relation to its current anti-doping record. Admittedly, I suspect our top athletes aren’t tested anywhere near as often as most Olympians but having been connected with the PSA Tour for a number of years, both as a player and a coach, it’s not something I have ever encountered.
Maybe that’s slightly naive and I have no doubt there will be many people who think that it is, but it’s certainly never been a concern that I, or any players I have coached, have lost matches because an opponent has been doping. If any further evidence were needed, just look at how poor the Russians are at squash… surely they couldn’t be that bad if drugs were effective in squash!
One of the reasons this might be the case is the complexity of the sport – being fitter or faster will obviously make you better but the fittest or fastest player doesn’t always win and as far as I’m aware they’ve yet to invent a drug that can increase your ability to hit the nick. But if it does exist can someone please start testing the Egyptians! Anyway, I’m well aware of some of the flaws in this argument but do we really want to increase the temptation to resort to such measures?
Another argument I’ve heard is that Olympic inclusion would inspire children to dream of becoming a professional squash player so they can one day win an Olympic Gold medal, or that existing professionals would be more motivated to train harder if such a prize was available. Both of these are ludicrous, in my opinion.
For most elite athletes (in any sport) the desire to become World Champion or play a sport professionally starts with an initial love of that particular activity and is eventually followed by a personal desire to achieve their full potential. Those who are motivated by extrinsic rewards tend to be rapidly succeeded by those whose primary motivation is to fully test their personal limits, whether that be physical or psychological.
The will to win of players such as Mohamed Elshorbagy and Gregory Gaultier, or the constant search for personal excellence displayed by Nicol David and Ramy Ashour, not to mention the sheer determination of Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro, these are the qualities that define the best squash players in the world.
To suggest that they would give a little more when they train or compete just because an Olympic medal suddenly became available would imply that they are not already giving 100%. Anyone who has seen any of these great players in action will hopefully agree that this is a ridiculous accusation.
So back to the original question of does squash need the Olympics? One of the most insightful answers I’ve ever heard on this topic came from former World No.3, Anthony Ricketts. He was once asked if he ever regretted playing squash when a sport like tennis would have been a more lucrative option. His answer was a resolute no.
For starters, he didn’t get into the sport for any reason other than enjoyment. That love of the game had stayed with him ever since and given him no reason to regret his choice. But the part of his answer that I found most fascinating related to something else he said. He explained that he had turned professional at the age of 18 when he moved to the Australian Institute of Sport. He then moved on to Europe to continue his professional career.
At the time of being asked he had managed to enjoy a 10 year career as a full-time professional, living off the money he earned solely from playing the sport he loved – i.e. tournament prize money, league appearance fees and sponsors – in addition to the support he received from the AIS. This income had supported him even when he was moving his way up the rankings well before he established himself as a top-10 player.
In comparison, he knew of fellow AIS members, many of them Olympians and a small handful who had won Olympics medals but were forced to work part-time in order to supplement the income they were able to make directly from their sport.
He even gave the example of a couple of hockey players who had won Gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens but were still unable to train and compete as full-time athletes. On the contrary, he had enjoyed a professional career for over a decade without ever having to earn money from other sources. Why on earth should he regret his decision to play squash?
Based on this testimony, it seems far-fetched that Olympic inclusion will suddenly change the fortunes of our sport. We already have a thriving World Tour which supports hundreds of professional players of both genders. The PSA continue to lead the way by constantly looking for ways to innovate the sport and improve how they operate. The amalgamation of the Men’s and Women’s Tours, combined with the recent trend towards equal prize money is another huge step forward for the sport.
Of course we could always look enviously at tennis and dream of £1m prize funds (or £30,000 for losing in the first round!) but to do so would miss the point. There are tennis players out there who insist that they deserve to be paid more and the only reason they lost in the first round was because the prize money was so low they couldn’t afford to bring their coach, physio, personal stringer, girlfriend and girlfriend’s pet dog with them! The point is, there are always people who believe they deserve more, whether that be individuals or collective groups and organisations.
As I’ve already said, squash has a lot to be thankful for so maybe it’s time we ditch the IOC, or at the very least stop pandering to what we think they want from us, and concentrate on showcasing the talents of some of the best athletes on the planet to those who are interested.
If history tells us anything about the IOC it’s that they will make things up as they go along anyway, so maybe it’s time to play hard to get and let them eventually realise what they’re missing.
COMMENT: Readers are invited to join the debate and comment below. We would love to hear from PSA members especially. Nick Matthew showed his feelings yesterday (with a controversial hashtag thrown in for good measure) when five new sports suggested by Tokyo were added to the 2020 programme in Tokyo.
— Nick Matthew OBE (@nickmatthew) August 3, 2016
Pictures from Squash Mad archive