The sport seemingly ticks many of the right boxes but continues to be snubbed by the International Olympic Committee, despite numerous attempts to plead its case for inclusion.
Watching the Olympics taking place in Tokyo, it’s been difficult to see why squash wouldn’t fit perfectly into a global event and movement that stands for ‘faster, higher, stronger’.
It’s physically demanding, requiring incredibly high levels of fitness and racquet skill to reach the top, never mind mental strength, whilst it’s also promoted as one of the healthiest sports in the world.
Further to that, squash has made great strides in recent years, increasing the marketability of the sport and sorting out the TV product. I would argue that it’s now very watchable – both in person and on TV – and is actually a great spectator sport, regardless of whether or not you have an intimate knowledge of the rules.
Yet, the IOC doesn’t see that, or rather, its selection criteria seem to be making it increasingly difficult for squash to qualify for inclusion. The IOC provided some insight into those criteria – and what it wants from future new events – in December, when unveiling the sports that would feature at the next two Games for the first time.
Karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing have made their debut in Tokyo, whilst breakdancing – yes, breakdancing – will feature in Paris in 2024, with IOC President Thomas Bach saying that the new additions would be “more gender balanced, more youthful and more urban”.
While squash is certainly gender balanced – there is also equal pay across the major Professional Squash Tour events – the sport’s problem areas apparently lie in standing out as “youthful and urban”.
There does also seem to be some concern about the growth of squash and its efforts at grassroots level, with a 2020 investigation by Squash Player Magazine revealing a near 50% decline in young male players in the last three years alone in the UK.
All of that being said, it’s hard to argue with, perhaps, squash’s greatest-ever player, Jahangir Khan, when he responded in December to the news on breakdancing by saying: “It’s ridiculous, I don’t see it as a sport, more for pleasure like going to a nightclub.”
He may be biased, but he knows a little about squash and what it takes to get to the top of the sport. Khan winning six world titles, 10 British Opens and going unbeaten for five-and-a-half years in the early 1980s.
December’s announcement was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for squash, which first attempted to become a demonstration sport at the Sydney Games in Australia in 2000, before serious bids for inclusion over the last 12 years. It has been edged out by other sports on all three occasions. This, despite the World Squash Federation being recognized by the International Olympic Committee.
Further to that, squash is played in over 185 countries by around 20 million people, with nearly 50,000 courts across the world, so there can’t be any concerns regarding the ‘global’ nature of the sport.
As already mentioned, it is dynamic and now more televisual than ever before, which was apparently one of the key areas the sport was told to go away and work on.
Whilst everyone can probably accept the need for modernization and inspiring the next generation, I would argue that squash requires physical and mental fortitude far beyond many of the newly-added Olympic sports. That’s despite skateboarding seemingly enjoying a bit of a fairytale introduction in Tokyo – no doubt aided by the endearing images of a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old standing on the podium after the women’s Park skateboarding final.
What isn’t in doubt is that skateboarding is both ‘youthful and urban’.
But, what about some of the other sports at the Olympics and their eligibility or suitability?
Take the likes of football and golf – two sports that clearly have priorities elsewhere, with many athletes skipping the Games to focus on other endeavours in these sports. As it is, the Olympic football tournament is only for under-23 teams and that’s apparently part of a drive to preserve the FIFA World Cup’s status as the men’s game’s premier international event.
The men’s Olympic tournament has been an under-23 event since 1992 and four years later this age restriction was modified to allow participating nations to also include three overage players in their squad.
Not ideal, when you’re looking for the ‘best of the best’ to shine at every Games.
Interestingly, the under-23 rule doesn’t apply to the women’s Olympic football tournament.
Then there’s golf – of which I am a huge fan, follower and player – but struggle to get away from the fact that it’s just not that appealing to all of the world’s top players, including the likes of American Dustin Johnson, some of whom were happy to just skip this year, due to the fact that it didn’t fit with their schedules.
American Xander Schauffele made for a great Olympic champion in Tokyo, following in the footsteps of Justin Rose four years ago, and there were some interesting stories around the golf tournament, but there’s no doubt that golf’s four majors remain the pinnacle of that sport, and every player, right now, would trade every Olympic golf title for just one career major.
As it stands, any sport considered for inclusion in the Olympics is evaluated based on five factors that are split into 35 criteria. So, it’s a little complicated, although I can tell you that the criteria include how much value the sport would add to the Olympics legacy; how long the sport has existed; how popular the sport is in the host country; how much it would cost to broadcast the events, and numerous other factors. Sports included in the Games must also be governed by an international sports federation and must comply with both the Olympic Charter and the World Anti-Doping Code.
All of that being said – and whilst I acknowledge that squash obviously has to meet the criteria laid down by the IOC to even have a chance of featuring at the Games – for me, it’s a bit more simple.
In my mind, it’s just a great sport, with so many facets to it, from both a physical and mental point of view.
Quite simply, it would be the perfect addition to the roster and certainly one that “would add to the Olympics legacy”.