Olympics: battling for gold – and status

The Olympic Games is one of the world’s greatest events. But what does it take for a sport to become an Olympic sport? And how does inclusion raise its profile? Vision reports

When the International Olympic Committee awarded wrestling a place on the timetable for the 2020 Tokyo Games the decision re-ignited the debate on how and why some sports make it to the “greatest show on earth” and others don’t.

Last September, IOC members awarded Japan’s capital the 2020 Games and reversed a decision taken seven months earlier to remove wrestling from the list of core sports on the Olympic calendar.

The vote to reinstate the freestyle and Greco-Roman forms of wrestling – an event that harks back to the ancient Games and has featured in all but one of the modern contests since 1896 – was welcomed by traditionalists. “We cannot imagine the Games without wrestling,” exclaimed Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti who heads the Association of National Olympic Committees. “Wrestling is a founder. Today was a great result.”

Wrestling’s inclusion for 2020 came ahead of two sports that many argue are more suitable to a modern Olympiad – squash and a unified baseball and softball event. All three sports made strong representations to the IOC. Wrestling, which unified the US, Russia and Iran in calls for its reinstatement, underwent a major restructuring prior to the decision and changed its rules after criticisms of its entertainment appeal at London 2012.

Antonio Castro, head of the International Baseball Federation, threw his weight behind the baseball/softball bid, maintaining that: “We [baseball] are the most popular sport in the world which is not part of the Olympic programme.”

Meanwhile, the chief of the World Squash Federation (WSF), Narayana Ramachandran, put the case for his sport while highlighting criticisms of wrestling’s popularity and credibility. “Squash would be a partner you can trust,” he insisted, “it represents the future, not the past.”

When the result was announced – with wrestling securing 49 member votes, squash came third with 22 – Ramachandran described the outcome as “heart-breaking”. Once again the topic of what constitutes an Olympic sport became a hot one. It will continue as the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro approach and ‘new’ events golf and rugby sevens feature alongside established track and field, team and water sports.

Youth appeal

According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), recent additions to the make-up of a summer Games, such as the triathlon, are awarded a place based upon a host of factors. These include the sport’s popularity – especially its youth appeal – its evidence of good governance and its “respect for the Olympic values”. And for former IOC President Jacques Rogge, golf and rugby will prove a welcome addition to the Games.

“Golf and rugby scored high on all the criteria,” Rogge said at the time of the announcement. “They have global appeal, a geographically diverse line-up of top iconic athletes and an ethic that stresses fair play.” 

“The IOC Executive Board carefully evaluated the seven sports [seeking inclusion] in a transparent and fair process. In the end, the decision came down to which two would add the most value,” added Rogge. The two new sports for 2016 won’t need an introduction to the IOC, though, since they’ve both featured as Olympic events in the past. Golf appeared at the 1900 and 1904 Games – in individual and team event form. Rugby union was a fixture, albeit the full, 15-player version, in 1900, 1908, 1920 and the Paris Games of 1924.

The 1924 rugby final was marred by a pitch invasion after the US beat host nation France. The medal ceremony had to be performed under armed guard and this sad end to the contest – coupled with demands to include more individual sports and the retirement of the pro-rugby head of the Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin – eventually led to the sport being dropped from the list of events.

That was until 2009, when the IOC voted 81-8 in favour of including rugby sevens and 63-27 in favour of reinstating golf. “Having an established international governing body is one of the key requirements for a sport to become an Olympic one,” explains David Goldblatt, BBC sports reporter and co-author of How to Watch the Olympics. “That really became a requirement under the auspices of De Coubertin, though some sports like archery took the best part of 50 years to get their act together.” As a result, archery was dropped from the Olympics in the 1920s and did not return until 1972.

According to Goldblatt, commercial factors play a major part in a sport gaining Olympic patronage. “That’s certainly the case with the Winter Olympics,” he adds. “Some events, like snowboarding, have pushed their way in based on their established popularity as sports in their own right, with a large, predominantly young following and media coverage.”