For many squash fans watching the Olympics you may well have wondered before, is squash an Olympic sport. There are several similar racquet sports in the Olympics, namely tennis, badminton and table tennis. Also there are surely several much more niche sports, such as roller hockey and synchronized swimming. So is there a place for squash?
Squash is not an Olympic sport, and it has never featured in the Olympics at any point of their history. The World Squash Federation (WSF) has made several failed attempts to have the sport included.
There are many things to know about the history of the WSF’s attempts to get squash Olympic status, and I will look at these, as well as the possible reasons why it is still not included in the Olympics.
Squash Is Not An Olympic Sport – Overview
Squash is surely no different to golf, tennis or even fencing – all of which have historically been Olympic sports. The question then centres on why it is that squash continues to be excluded from the biggest sporting showpiece in the world.
Squash has already failed to win over the hearts and minds of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) three times and there is slender evidence to suggest the custodians of the Summer Games will alter their outlook ahead of Paris 2024. The squash fraternity is particularly perturbed by the regular snubs. Frankly speaking it should be.
However, anger and frustration will only get you so far in life. At some point there needs to be a certain level of introspection. The squash fraternity needs to start asking itself why it continues to be excluded from the Olympic Games.
There needs to be a firmer grasp on what it is that the IOC is trying to achieve under the administration of Thomas Bach, the sports governing body’s current President.
Interesting fact, Bach himself was an Olympic fencer. A Gold Medallist at that.
Beyond that, Bach is a lawyer by profession and a reformer. That is a bit more important to note than his fencing background. A defining feature of his administration is what has been branded as Olympic Agenda 2020.
At the heart of that campaign is the desire to encourage the sustainable development of the Olympic Games.
Now we can all bury our heads in the sand and pretend the world isn’t moving – albeit at a painfully slow pace – or we can accept that tradition is useful if it caters to or conforms to a changing world. A world that is commercially driven.
Perhaps that doesn’t deal directly with the squash snub but it does give you an idea of how the IOC is thinking. So, the jury is obviously out on whether squash fits into that vision.
Squash Rejection Ahead of Paris 2024
One of the campaign posters for the Squash Goes For Gold bid ahead of Paris 2024 features Camille Serme and Gregory Gaultier. Both players are obviously French – that is an important detail.
However, both players are also shadows of the players they once were and both are in their 30s. Gaultier is actually encroaching on 40. That, ladies and gentlemen, should be your first clue right there.
Paris 2024 organisers have always made it clear that they want to include sports that appeal to young people in France. There are two aspects to this that are intertwined. There is a commercial aspect, which we briefly addressed earlier in this segment but there is also the desire to lend legitimacy to the Olympic Games. Both go hand in hand.
The World Squash Federation has always been adamant that the sport’s governing body has made tremendous strides in capturing the imagination of young people that squash has been innovative.
While there is no doubt that squash finds itself in a better health than ever and that has been thanks in part to the tremendous efforts of figures like PSA CEO Alex Gough and WSF President Jacques Fontaine.
However, the reality is that squash faces very stiff competition from sporting codes – most of them not tradition – which have captured the imagination of young people during the past two decades.
So, while squash efforts have been commendable, the jury remains out on whether they have been enough to keep the attention of young people who are consistently finding other ways to keep themselves entertained.
As most people know by now, squash has already been defeated by break dancing ahead of Paris 2024. Break dancing – commonly known as breaking – has been added to the shortlist ahead of the IOC Session in June.
It got the nod ahead of squash. Those in the know are convinced that breaking will make the final cut for Paris 2024 too. Some people have been stunned by the latest developments but it really should not be a surprise.
Whether we like it or not, this is where the world is going. Breaking already featured at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games. As it so happens, Breaking was particularly popular and most will say successful at Buenos Aires.
When those final deliberations are made, squash will compete alongside – and perhaps against – climbing, skateboarding and surfing. There is actually very little doubt that breaking will be rubberstamped ahead of Paris 2024 and his views on the sport are perhaps quite telling.
Bach believes breaking is a very authentic expression. To him it is more than just an exercise or performance.
That is something that squash needs to reflect upon going forward. There are many purists among us – I am one of them. I don’t like change. Truth be told, there is only so much that can be done to “electrify” the squash experience.
If we are hoping for squash to provide a platform for authentic expression – something that young people crave more and more – the sport will be on a hiding to nothing and should just give up on the Olympic dream altogether.
The reality is – and nobody really likes talking about – is that squash is still viewed by many around the world as the sport of Empire. In most developing or emerging markets, squash is the sport played by the country club crowd.
One of those emerging markets is Nigeria, a country of about 200-million people. We can say with considerable certainty that your chances of finding a break-dancer are far greater than those of running into a squash enthusiast or a squash court for that matter.
Incidentally, the capacity to stage the sport as an outdoor event is among the considerations for the IOC. Squash, as glamorous as it has become over the years, simply cannot compete with breaking on that front either.
Nigeria was just a random example of an emerging market but it is also a highly relevant one in the context of Paris 2024. Anybody who watched France win last year’s FIFA World Cup will happily acknowledge that the face of French society has changed dramatically in the past ten years.
France has won two of the last six football World Cups. Both of those French teams could well have been mistaken for African teams. I know this is getting long-winded but there is ultimately a point to this.
A key consideration for the IOC is that of a sport that will appeal to young people in Paris 2024. The youth of Paris is more culturally diverse than most societies in the Western World. African voices have become more valid than ever.
If we are to assume that the outlook of the IOC will not change for the foreseeable future, we can at least take solace from the fact that there is actually a way out of this mess for squash.
Squash is already trying to do this – and making tremendous strides at that – but it there needs to be a more concerted to effort for the sport to dismantle its colonial identity. Sure, in large sections of the developed world, squash does not really represent class division anymore.
However, in developing and emerging economies squash is the very statement of class. Normally, you have to apply to join a Country Club. Applications require fees and references. If you are accepted – and that is a very huge if – you then have to adhere to apparel regulations.
It can all be very off-putting, especially for those who seek authentic expression, as Bach calls it. Building glass courts with strobe lights simply isn’t going to cut it.
Other Failed Bids
London 2012 seemed like good prospect for squash, after two spaces opened up following Beijing 2008. Nothing says British more than squash. The British Open was the most prestigious tournament in squash for most of the last century.
Legacies were built on success at the British Open. When squash failed to secure a two-third majority for London 2012, there could not have been a stronger message sent to international squash authorities.
That message was that even London was changing – and changing for the better. Squash needed to do urgently do some homework and some catching up before the world leaves it behind for good.
At the time squash was competing against four other codes. They included Roller Sports, Golf, Karate and Rugby Sevens.
Squash and karate made the final cut ahead of London 2012 but both were ultimately booted at the final hurdle. In bidding processes, allegations of corruption are often bandied about. That might not necessarily be case is in this instance.
However, let us imagine for a moment that there was indeed some form of skulduggery. That in itself should send a message. We are not for one moment suggesting that squash authorities should stand producing brown envelopes.
But it would not hurt to establish who has the capacity to produce a brown envelope and why they are producing the brown envelope. At the very least it is a good indication of where the world is going. That should provide a platform for you to at the least identify which countries could not be bothered about advancing the squash cause and why.
If that means taking the game of squash to the Kazakh Desert then so be it.
Following the dismal failure of London 2012, Rio 2016 would have been a glorious opportunity for squash to capture a whole new market. However, squash authorities conducted that bid despite having virtually no presence in South America.
In fact, for the 2015/16 season the PSA World Tour had just two South American tournaments on the calendar and both of them were in one country – that country was not Brazil.
A sport like tennis, which is now an established Olympic sport went into the Rio Olympics with a very strong presence in South America and a blossoming heritage in that region. It is a trick that squash authorities have missed again and again.
Forget about the tennis example though, the real stinger was being beaten by golf – a sport that says social elite more than any other. Squash was beaten by golf, even though the rules had changed to just a simple majority vote and not a two-thirds majority vote.
All hands were on deck for the 2016 squash bid though. At least there was an acknowledgement on the part of authorities that significant ground was regularly being lost. Scott Garrett was appointed as the bid manager for that campaign.
Here is a beautiful video of the bid, featuring Ramy Ashour and Nicol David:
Under his administration, seven key messages were developed and presented to the IOC.
The Seven Key Messages
These messages were that:
i) Squash is relevant for today as the world’s healthiest, most exciting sport.
Forbes Magazine concluded that squash was the world’s healthiest sport after a survey in 2007. Squash doesn’t take very long to play but players burn lots of calories while playing, so it’s great for young people today who want to get fit in the shortest possible time. At the elite level, squash is extremely athletic and exciting to watch, live and on TV.
ii) Squash is a popular, accessible sport, played the world over.
Squash is played in 175 countries by over 20 million people. Every continent contains recreational players and professionals. It is played by men and women, young and old. It’s easy to get started and the cost of equipment is low. There are courts all over the world and it’s easy to just turn up and have a game.
iii) The game is well organised to take advantage of inclusion in the Olympic Games.
Both the PSA and WISPA manage flourishing World Tours in which elite players compete. The WSF manages World Championships and these are fully integrated into the World Tours. All three organisations are 100% behind the bid for inclusion in the Olympic Programme and are fully prepared to take advantage of the increase in awareness and participation that will result for the good of the game, and the Games, in general.
iv) An Olympic Medal will be the sport’s highest honour.
Every elite player agrees that the Olympic Games would take the sport to a different level and the Olympic Champion of Squash is a title that every player wants. For the Lausanne presentation, this was combined with the messages below:
v) Squash’s top athletes will definitely compete.
The world’s top men and women have all signed a pledge that they would compete in the Olympic Games. They will be supported in doing so by their National Federations, the WSF and PSA or WISPA.
vi) Squash can take the Olympic Games into new markets.
Squash has world class athletes from countries that do not traditionally produce Olympians. Including squash in the Olympic Games will boost awareness of the Olympic Movement in these countries, and will also promote better funding for the development of the sport.
vii) The impact of squash on the Olympic Games will be high, the cost low.
Squash is a portable sport: a court requires minimal space and can be erected almost anywhere. Squash tournaments have been held in many iconic locations around the world, attracting players and non-players to the sport. This makes squash an ideal sport for showcasing the host city. We will use local squash clubs in the host city for training and practice, so squash can be staged without any investment in permanent facilities or infrastructure.
Making the case for points two and six was always going to be the challenge.
The other sport that beat squash ahead of Rio 2016 was rugby sevens. Truth be told, squash is more representative that rugby sevens. It is honestly scandalous that squash was overlooked for rugby sevens – no matter how little progress the IOC might say squash has made.
Climbing, Skateboarding, Baseball and Surfing.
While climbing is somewhat of a mystery, losing to skateboarding, baseball and surfing reinforces the message that squash needs to learn to move with the times.
The squash fraternity is hugely grateful for the contribution that Australia, Egypt and Pakistan have made to the sport. All three countries are a huge part of the heritage in our sport and that is not lost on anybody.
However, the sooner stakeholders realise that there is a much bigger world out there, the better the prospects of squash winning over new hearts and minds.