This week, the 15 members of the IOC's executive board voted in St. Petersburg, Russia to shortlist three sports for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, and they've decided that squash, wrestling and a combined bid from baseball and softball are under consideration. All 101 members of the IOC will vote among those three to determine the 28th sport to be added to the Olympic program on Sept. 8.
After being in the modern Olympics for a century, with roots that date back to the ancient Games, wrestling was put on the provisional list earlier this year in an unexpected call by the executive board. In response, the sport worked furiously in a short period of time to win back the IOC's support. It promised rule changes to liven the sport and increase scoring, especially in Greco-Roman matches. It added women's divisions to the Olympic program making six divisions in each category (men's freestyle, women's freestyle and Greco-Roman, which is a male classification). The new president, Nenad Lalovic, also promised that FILA, the international governing body of the sport, would name at least one female vice president. It got rid of some antiquated ways of breaking ties and promised a better governance structure within its organization.
The adjustments were timely answers to concerns posted by the IOC that wrestling was tone deaf to some of its shortcomings, that it was unwilling to modernize at a time when all sports and facets of the Olympic movement were compelled to do so. The sport enjoys fairly wide ranging support among IOC members in Asia, the caucuses, parts of Europe and the U.S., though not as much in Latin and South America.
This slap may have been more of a warning -- to wrestling and all other sports -- to take the IOC's admonitions seriously. Sure, traditionalists will want to keep the sport's integrity in tact without changing its essence, but as squash is going high-tech and two sports are uniting into one to survive, wrestling will need to note the sizzle around the steak -- the marketing, the meet signage, the promotional buzz that can still raise and protect the sport, without changing it.
Baseball and softball, which were dropped in 2012 after four Olympics, have always been in odd positions within the Olympic world. This time around, they combined forces in order to take up one sport on the program; however, their events cannot be played in the same venues, and the number of athletes would not be reduced by combining sports under one bureaucratic roof.
Independently, baseball and softball have weak points to their candidacies. First, they were both kicked out once before, and have seemingly made just the one major change of joining forces to improve their prospects. Baseball may be a major sport in the U.S., but it is minor in the Olympic world, and there are still several warts holding it back.
There is no indication that Major League Baseball will be willing to break its season, as hockey has done, for instance, to allow the best major leaguers to participate. And even if it did, judging by the limited appeal of the World Baseball Classic, would the tournament generate much buzz anyway? Baseball has also endured well-publicized steroid cases in recent years that could scare away the IOC. The committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency would no doubt have a tough time convincing MLB and its players association to make players available for testing far enough in advance of the Games.
The Olympic baseball tournament has also been oddly divided up by regional participants. When the eight-team tournament was held in Athens in 2004, three of the qualified teams came from Europe: Greece, as host country; Italy and the Netherlands. Which countries didn't qualify that year? The U.S., Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and South Korea, thus rendering the tournament a sham. Baseball's qualification criteria will need to make room for the best teams, rather than just certain numbers from certain regions. The sport is widely practiced in the Americas and Asia, where it should receive a number of votes.
While softball doesn't have issue of drug use or top players not being available, there is a lack of competitive balance at the top of the sport. In four Olympics, the medal winners came from four countries: the U.S., China, Japan and Australia. While the number of countries playing the sport is increasing, the number that can actually challenge for medals is too few. Don't expect many voters from Europe, about half the IOC membership, to be supportive.
Squash, seeking entry into the Olympics for the first time, is played in over 50,000 courts in 185 countries. The international federation produced a slick, high-tech, high-definition presentation to the IOC's executive board. Malaysia's Nicol David, the current world No. 1 female squash player, said, "I would happily trade all my six world titles for an Olympic gold medal." Egypt's Ramy Ashour added, "What will playing at the Olympic Games mean to me? Everything."
Each continent has produced world champions, including David and Ashour. Both players mentioned how the sport embraces change and innovation, with views of laser light above courts. A handful of places such as North African nations, East Asian nations and the UK are strong in squash, but not necessarily wrestling or baseball. Their members may be likely to back squash.
The sport does not have the burden of having failed at previous Olympics, although it has been contested at major regional competitions such as the Asian Games and the Pan-Am Games. It is a sport that is hard to follow live in front of a large crowd, because of the enclosed court and small ball. The enhancement of flashing lights notwithstanding, many spectators at the venues watch the matches on scoreboards rather than on the court in front of them. It does translate fairly well to television because of the court's tight confines. Organizers have introduced glass courts to tournaments, instituted a three-referee system to reduce arguments and expanded camera positions to make the sport more TV-friendly.