Friday, January 27, 2023

Comment: Why squash does NOT need the Olympics

Australian Anthony Ricketts put his love of the game above everything else
Australian Anthony Ricketts put his love of the game above everything else

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. 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.

World number one Mohamed Elshorbagy and world champion Gregory Gaultier clearly love their job
World number one Mohamed Elshorbagy and world champion Gregory Gaultier clearly love their job

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. 


Pictures from Squash Mad archive 


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  1. I agree with some of the points above.

    I think some of the allure of the Olympics is the simple feeling for squash fans world wide is ‘Wouldn’t it be great to sit back and watch the top players over the next 2 weeks in Rio’. Many of us have played other racketball sports – badminton, tennis etc – and will think that when they turn on the television and see them being played: no squash, such a shame and injustice that athletes just as fit and skillful as Djokovic and co aren’t there competing, entertaining. Obviously, for the top players such feelings are greater: wouldn’t it be great not to watch, but to play. Such feelings intensify every time the Olympics come around and there aint no squash. Then there’s the angst of rejection: the more you get knocked back, the more you can want it. Added to that, there’s the growing frustration with WSF. I haven’t seen an analysis of just how useless the WSF has been, but if squash in the Olympics has been a key objective, then it’s failed miserably – obviously. Without knowing the figures of the latest vote, squash has got further and further away from Olympic inclusion in terms of IOC votes for 20 years now, not closer.

    So, given this, and leaving aside the arguments of ‘A Squash Professional’, there is a case for saying let’s just end this cycle of rejection with inevitable feeling of not just failure but inferiority (you can see the comments on squash websites: ‘The game just isn’t televisual’ etc etc – like climbing is going to be more exciting than, say, Ramy v Shorebagy for the gold medal?!). The danger is that the failure will become both obsessional, distracting as well as very boring. Perhaps it already has.

  2. Anthony Ricketts may be an exception, but my guess is most squash pros failed at tennis somewhere along the way and would gladly trade sports.

    • Ted Gross, your comment is woefully inaccurate. If you speak to most of the pros, they took up squash because their parents etc played – hanging around the courts, then eventually having a go etc. Tennis wasn’t even a consideration. Anyway, I’m not feeding a troll anymore.

      Back to the real discussion; The IOC clearly don’t want squash to feature in The Olympics. Fine. Get over it and move on. Squash aren’t the ‘cool kids’. We’re the nerds at the back of the class. Nerds don’t get invited to the popular parties. Once nerds grow up, they throw their own parties and have a way better time. Please can we stop begging for an invite and just do our own thing?

  3. I think you make some really points here, but for me, the crucial (if cynical) reason for squash to get into the olympics is M.O.N.E.Y.

    Here in Canada, sport funding is very closely tied to the Olympics; the sports that Canada stands a chance to win at (ice hockey, speed skating, rowing) are well supported by local and national governments.

    I’m the point you making, but the bottom line is that squash (at least here in Canada) is shrinking at the grass roots level primarily due to the fact that courts are disappearing left right and centre. The increased level of funding that Olympic inclusion would provide might tip the scales in our favour and encourage the financial viability for more courts to be built in public facilities.

    That said, in tennis, the Olympics carry very little weight when compared to the prestige of winning a grand slam. The health of the tour is what defines tennis, not its role in the olympics. Given the upward trajectory of the tour, maybe squash players of the future would consider the Olympics as a lesser achievement than a World title or British Open

  4. SP makes some good points in placing in context the lack of a tangible qualitative or quantitative impact of finally having Squash included in the Olympic Movement. Including, (1) the unlikely enhancement of revenue for the individual champion, (2) an overwhelming preference for Squash by its players rather than for becoming an overpaid Sports Personality in another Sport , (3) perhaps even the overvaluation of Olympic Gold relative to e.g. the World Championships in elevating the immense physical and mental intensity of the training regimens of Squash Players. A regimen which has already placed them in the highest tiers of Athletes/Racquet Athletes as determined by multiple and independent measurements. Squash is an All Court game with multiple tiers of training underpinning an unmatched range and density of variables in Racquetwork, Footwork, Spatial Dimensions, Movements, mental toughness, tactics/strategy, etc…!

    In agreement with Anthony Ricketts – only a small fraction of Squash Players that we either knew or knew off, began with Tennis! They represented nations on the Indian subcontinent or in Asian, African, and South American continents. The US and Europe may have different numbers? But perhaps this needs a careful measurement!

    However, there are however far more persuasive, if intangible, reasons for persevering with having Squash included in the Olympic Movement! The Olympic Movement originated in Greece as long as 2792 years ago, in 776 BC, remains at the accepted Pinnacle for all Sports! It is one in which all 200 Nations representing all 7 billion people i.e. Humankind participates (directly or indirectly), and so accepted as the Pinnacle of Sport!

    This says much about Heritage and History of the Olympic Movement – more than can ever be matched by that of any individual sport or nation! It is why the Mega Sports of Golf, Tennis and Soccer craved inclusion into the Olympic Movement – despite their revenues of $10 of millions or even $100s of millions! It is the lasting and quadrennial reason why all Global Chasms are bridged – including those of the East and West during the Cold War, Developing and Developed Nations of North and South, Gender, Age and Ethnicity (within reason) !

    Squash is striking it its absence from this Pantheon at the Pinnacle of Sport. And justifying its absence with ‘their loss’ summed up by the reasons listed above is not only a disservice to its Racquet Athletes and the Squash Community but also to the Global Sports Communities!

    Especially, when one considers that the barrier that Squash faces is an eminently solvable problem! How? Through cooperation between the Squash and Scientific communities. Cooperation which will not only allow Squash to enter the Olympic Movement – but also correct the inbuilt limitations to communicating the game and so to its growth!

    It is only a simple matter to look at the facts! As has been repeatedly pointed out Squash as a Global Participant Sport is thriving! The numbers estimated by most Administrative Organizations in the Sport are 25 million Squash Players in 188 countries – with the game having grown over 140 years from its roots in England! Where is it failing to make the connect to the World of Sports and the Global Community? Squash fails in the televisual communication required for any Spectator Sport to thrive. This requires the communication leading to building a commercial TV audience – and the revenues it brings! Once established non initiated Viewers become ‘educated and gain access’ to the hidden complexities of the game. In turn bringing the Economic and Political clout – thus improving acceptance and entry into the Olympic Movement. It will take time – but this is well within the realms of possibility! And certainly not justifying the current doubt, dismay, lack of cognizance with social media and resiliency that are the Hallmarks of the Squash Community!

    This does not mean that the flip side does not exist!

    The latest announcement by the PSA in expanding the numbers of Sports Television Stations/Channels that will carry Squash, is of course, encouraging! However, these outlets are mostly located in developing markets and the basic limitations of televisual communications are unsolved! One only has to remember that Squash did make Cameo appearances on BBC TV in the nation of its birthplace where (along with the Australian Sports Scene) it had thrived at one time! We hope that the current emergence survives the attention span of the uninitiated viewership needed to generate a market!

  5. Well said Alan. WSF has long focused on getting into the Olympics while ignoring the grass root development of the game. Prize money at the top of the game may be growing but numbers are dropping at the bottom.

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