Squash returns to familiar campaign trail in search of inclusion in Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Sports offers good participation numbers and a low-cost option to the IOC but suffers from a lack of visibility and youth appeal, writes Osman Samiuddin

Mohammed El Shorbagy of Egypt in action against James Willstrop during their semi-final match in the Canary Wharf Squash Classic on March 21, 2013, in London, England. Jordan Mansfield / Getty Images
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Last weekend in Tokyo, a delegation of squash officials made a presentation for Olympic officials to consider its inclusion in Tokyo 2020.

The game is again putting itself out there, like some beauty show contestant, in the hope that it can be invited to the biggest party in sport.

So often have they tried that an Olympic bid has almost become one of squash’s majors alongside the World Open and the British Open. The difference is that it does not happen every year and nobody wins.

The sport was rejected in 2005, 2009 and 2013, soon after Tokyo was chosen as the host city for 2020.

Last year, though, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced they were allowing for an unspecified number of sports to be added to the Tokyo Games roster.

Eight sports made their case last weekend and squash is competing with baseball, softball, climbing, surfing, karate, wushu, 10-pin bowling (really?) and, potentially, skateboarding (the International Federation of Roller Sports has not publicly specified which roller sport).

It is an eccentric, almost absurd list in which each sport probably looks at the other sniffily and questions whether it is in fact a sport.

For instance, karate can outline a vast history and origins that date back centuries, but could lose out to skateboarding, which is as old as the Rolling Stones. That would burn.

Squash should at least be used to it. In its case, hope is cruel because, again, it seems as if they are building up only for a fall.

This month, the Professional Squash Association (PSA) claimed that squash reached out to more homes in more countries than ever before in the first half of this year.

Cleverly, the PSA took control of producing its broadcasts and has teamed up with broadcasters around the world to show the semis and finals of its biggest events on mainstream TV.

The numbers, as ever, are enthusiastic: 200 million homes, 88 countries. Difficult as they are to verify, I can at least count myself in that statistic. In May this year, I watched the final of the British Open – the sport’s Wimbledon – live on television for the first time in years.

Without being plugged into the sport and its rivalries, it was every bit as riveting as the sport has always been.

The broadcast has improved immeasurably, the white ball against glass courts overcoming what was an early TV problem of visibility.

The commentary was a little too fanboy-ish, as if every rally or stroke was a statement to the IOC. But it also had the kind of moments TV and fans love.

The Frenchman and runner-up Gregory Gaultier riffed off a John McEnroe bad-boy vibe throughout; the winner and world No 1 Mohammed Elshorbagy telephoned his coach Jonah Barrington during a break and, emboldened, came back to win. He then called him again in celebration.

It has much going for it, not least participation numbers across genders.

This time it is selling itself as a cheap, easy-to-accommodate option with cost cutting a big deal in the Olympic world at present.

It is unlikely to get in, though, as baseball and softball are the big favourites and, given their reach in Japan, it would appear almost inevitable that they take one spot.

The inclusion of surfing and roller sports on that shortlist betrays another awkward truth for squash in that, whatever it has going for it, however established it is, it perhaps lacks a central fashionability.

It is just there, not especially old or new, as just another racquet sport that everyone plays, not a specific, marketable ­demographic.

In between Games, the Olympics can feel like an anachronism in the sporting world. They are important, but perhaps more self important and even a little out of touch.

It is easy to see how, in considering and possibly inducting sports such as surfing or skateboarding, the Olympics are aiding themselves in feeling relevant.


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