By ALAN THATCHER
World number one James Willstrop is taking a leading role in finding a voice which explains how squash players in England feel about the Olympic Games being held here in London, and how hard it is to deal with the fact that squash has not been invited to the party.
It reminds me of how I felt when my daughter arranged her own 18th birthday party and told my wife and I that we were not welcome in our own house during the festivities. It was extremely painful, seeing all the bunting and decorations being put up, imagining all the fun that would be had all through the night, then staying awake at the hotel to which we had been banished, worrying about what state we would find the house in the next morning.
That pretty much sums up the Olympic feeling for squash players. It’s a great British party, and we’re not welcome.
With Willstrop on top of the PSA rankings, and his great Yorkshire rival, world champion Nick Matthew, at two, it’s surprisingly easy to conjure up images of the two being feted as national heroes had they been given the opportunity to add to Team GB’s medal tally in the Olympics.
I interviewed both players at Canary Wharf earlier this year about their feelings on this subject and each one provided an eloquent response. It was a bitter-sweet feeling, they said, especially with our tournament accommodation being next to the Olympic Village in Stratford.
Both admitted that it hurt, knowing they would have been fighting for a gold medal, but that the opportunity had been denied them. But both stressed the need to keep fighting for a rightful place in the Games, so that the next generation of squash players might enjoy the opportunity of battling for the ultimate prize in sport, an Olympic gold medal.
While Matthew has been Tweeting furiously every day throughout the event, expressing his support for fellow athletes who train with him at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield (and who wouldn’t want to Tweet about the wonderful Jessica Ennis?), Willstrop has adopted a more prosaic route with a column in the Huffington Post website.
Entitled ‘A Squash Player’s Olympic Diary’ Willstrop pens daily thoughts about the party to which squash has not been invited, and also writes about the dreams he has at night, the most notable being the one about Prime Minister David Cameron calling him to congratulate him on his gold medal.
Cameron, like Royal princes William and Harry, has been an ever-present at the Olympic Games, bathing in the shared glow of national pride at the achievements of our leading athletes.
That squash deserves to be part of the show is indisputable. We tick all the right boxes in terms of athletic endeavour, global participation, and equal gender opportunity, but, as Willstrop points out in a sanguine, laconic style, when he emerged from his nocturnal imaginations “I woke up, realising these dreams are the closest I will ever get to the Olympics”.
In his first post, he wrote: “I decided to miss the opening ceremony. Instead I went out to eat with a few squash playing friends, where we licked our wounds over squash’s exclusion from the Games. We felt like we were partaking in our own private boycott, as if to make some statement, but of course no-one listened or cared.
“My friends at BBC Radio Leeds decided to take pity on me this afternoon for the fact that I am not in London, where they interviewed me and played some of my favourite songs.
“Hats off to the sport of Beach Volleyball for tapping in to the glamour aspect. Maybe we could get the World Squash Federation to follow their lead: squash courts in the sand? Scantily clad competitors? We could even manufacture advertising campaigns exposing luscious derrières of the sport’s best exponents. Certainly there is no athlete on earth (blame it on the constant lunges) who can demonstrate such trouser-busting gluteal definition in the way a squash player does.”
He also praised Nicol David for her daily Twitter Blog in which she poses for pictures trying out one of the Olympic sports.
He added: “Nicol David, the women’s world number one from Malaysia, has a slightly different way than me of purging her Olympic blues: she has been tweeting photos of herself in different Olympic guises over the last few days. Today she was posing as an archery player. A novel and fun way of keeping her 50 million followers updated over the period.
“I also can’t help noticing Alan Thatcher’s tweets: the World Squash Day chief seems to be hell bent on getting ‘Back the Bid’ all over twitter in any way he possibly can. Was it today I saw him bombarding all the VVIPs – from Lord Coe to Sophie Raworth to Clare Balding- with messages of encouragement to support squash’s bid for the games?”
James has, very kindly, twice mentioned World Squash Day in his column and the efforts being made to Back The Bid for squash’s inclusion in the 2020 Games.
We often talk about bravery in sport in rather exaggerated measures but James was perhaps moving out of his isolated comfort zone in Leeds to confront his Olympic nightmare by getting on a train to London and visiting the Games with girlfriend Vanessa Atkinson.
James signed off yesterday’s column, saying: ” Vanessa and I wandered through the Olympic Park and wondered if I should have brought a few books down to London to sell. I had overlooked the fact that I could have set up a stand and got rid of a few in the Olympic Park.
“Not only could we have sold at least 13 books to all those Rebecca Adlington fans, but when they bought the book, I could have explained what squash was and given Alan Thatcher’s back the bid campaign a bit more promotion. Never mind.”
Here’s the link. It’s a great read. Well done, James. You should have been offered a chapter or two in the new squash book, The Club From Hell.
Or, with the British Open moving to Yorkshire next year, it could have been renamed The Club From Hull.