Will Olympic dreams for ambitious squash ever be realised?

Golf and rugby sevens were given their debut at Rio 2016, but squash continues to fight to become an Olympic sport, writes Gruffudd Owen

With a record number of countries competing in a record number of sports at the Rio Olympics this summer, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - organisers of one of the world's greatest sporting events - can point to this spirit of inclusivity as a compelling reason for the enduring appeal of the Games.

And while the Olympic Movement may be just that – nomadic, going from continent to continent, hemisphere to hemisphere with every edition staged – the fundamental essence of the Games is perpetual: all the world is invited, and everyone is welcome.

Followers of the game of squash, however, can be forgiven for feeling otherwise. 

July 2005, and the sport’s bid to be included as an Olympic sport fell agonisingly short after IOC members voted against replacing baseball and softball – both dropped for the London 2012 Games – with squash.

The same disappointing outcome occurred four years later when the sport was overlooked for Rio, while a third consecutive attempt to join the Olympic family in 2020 was met with rejection by both the IOC in 2013 and the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee last year. 

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This exhausting, decade-long struggle for Olympic recognition has led to squash being regarded as something of an outsider in the world of sport – pressed against the fence, waiting and looking on enviously while the party is in full swing on the other side.

In truth, the idea of getting squash into the Games has existed for longer than the 11 years since the World Squash Federation (WSF) lodged the first formal bid for inclusion.

“It’s been a long story with squash,” says Nick Matthew, the English professional squash player and former world no. 1 who is one of the most decorated competitors in the game. “I saw a magazine cover from 1975 the other day talking about squash getting into the Olympics. So it’s not just something that’s been happening in the last few years, it’s something that’s been going on a long time, and seems to get more bewildering every time.”

To not be able to compete on the grandest sporting stage of all in the peak years of his career must have been particularly galling for Matthew, who was denied the chance to compete at a home Games in 2012.

“Squash not being part of the Olympics is the biggest disappointment in my career,” the now-36-year-old explains. “Especially the home Olympics in 2012. I think I was no. 1 in the world around that time so I would have had a great chance for a medal. It was just a blow, and hard to watch, to be honest.”

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After so many setbacks, it would be natural to assume that the sport’s top decision-makers – short of giving up on campaigning for Olympic acceptance altogether – have at least acknowledged that the task is going to be increasingly difficult given the number of rival sports competing for a place at the Games.

However, such an assumption ignores the enormous progress made by the Professional Squash Association (PSA) under the astute leadership of Ziad Al-Turki. The Saudi businessman – who first joined the PSA in 2009 and now acts as its Chairman – has overseen a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of the professional circuit, both figuratively and financially.

Until recently, the professional tour was in a parlous state. The World Championships in 2000 and 2001 were cancelled due to a lack of sponsorship, while even the top players lagged far behind other professional sportspeople in terms of potential earnings.

For a squash fanatic such as Al-Turki, this predicament simply could not go on.

Immersing himself in every facet of the game, the Saudi pumped significant investment into the circuit, yielding highly impressive results.

The sport gained significant exposure this year when the PSA World Series Finals were held in front of Dubai’s colossal Burj Khalifa – the tallest structure in the world – and the event’s future in the city has been secured for a further two years, with the 2017 and 2018 editions to be staged at the Dubai Opera.

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Footballing icon Diego Maradona was also present in Dubai, which goes to show just how much the PSA has succeeded in enhancing the sport’s global appeal – a concept that the tour’s top players are keen to get behind.

“Having tournaments in amazing locations like here in Dubai, and Grand Central Station (New York), I do feel we’re in the right place right now,” says the Egyptian squash player and current men’s world no. 1 Mohamed El Shorbagy. “I think the tour is strong, for men and women. The PSA has been doing such a great job.”

The tour’s leading professionals also make the case that the athleticism, stamina and mental strength required to play squash is equal to many sports that already enjoy Olympic status – and perhaps even greater than some. The gladiatorial nature of the game – two opponents locked in a small space, battling each other until one victor emerges – makes it an ideal Olympic sport, according to women’s no. 8 Amanda Sobhy.

“Squash is possibly one of the best and most deserving sports to be in the Olympics just out of sheer physicality, mental and emotional [strength] – everything combined,” she argues.

“It’s so strategic – you just combine all these elements. And to have it not be there with some of the other top sports, it’s a real pity.”  

And so the wait goes on, but with the sport seemingly going from strength to strength – visiting ever more spectacular locations and attracting famous followers along the way – it is surely a case of when, not if, for squash and its Olympic dream.