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Is This an Olympic Sport?

June 06, 2005
June 06, 2005

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June 6, 2005

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Is This an Olympic Sport?

The IOC is voting on whether to eliminate some events and add others--a contentious first step toward freshening up the Games

The first shot was fired in August 2002, at an International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was a simple proposal by the IOC's Program Commission to improve the Summer Games by adding two of the world's most popular sports: golf and rugby. To make room, the commission recommended eliminating three existing Olympic sports: baseball, modern pentathlon and softball. That's when the trouble began. ¶ The proposal stirred up such a hornet's nest that it never came to a vote three months later at an IOC session in Mexico City. The episode proved again that while the Olympic family has been terrific at broadening its program to include everything from taekwondo to circus events such as synchronized swimming and trampoline, it has been incapable of seriously considering whether those, or other sports, really belong in the Games. No sport has been removed from the Olympics since polo got the ax after the 1936 Games.

This is an article from the June 6, 2005 issue Original Layout

Consequently, the Summer Olympics have become supersized. Athlete participation has ballooned 63% in the last 20 years, from 6,802 in Los Angeles in 1984 to the record 11,099 in Athens last year (which exceeded the supposed limit of 10,500 that the IOC adopted three years ago). Seven sports were added in that span: table tennis and tennis (1988), badminton and baseball ('92), softball ('96) and taekwondo and triathlon (2000).

Hosting the Olympics has become so gargantuan a task that cities and countries can go deep into hock to hold them; IOC president Jacques Rogge has long been concerned that the size and cost have made it impossible for smaller, poorer nations ever to host the Games. Yet when faced with the prospect of voting out three small federations in Mexico City, delegate after delegate spoke passionately in their defense. In response, recalls Jim Easton, one of three U.S. representatives on the 116-member IOC, "President Rogge wisely said, 'Let's go back and look at all the sports, not just these three.'"

That's exactly what the IOC has done--and for the first time some Summer Games federations are worried about the Olympic future of their sports. At its early July meeting in Singapore, the same session at which the 2012 host city will be chosen, the IOC membership will hold an unprecedented vote, by secret ballot, on the fate of all 28 Summer Olympic sports. Aquatics, in or out? Archery, yea or nay? And so on, through wrestling. A sport will need more than 50% of the votes to remain on the program for 2012; if any sport is voted out, the IOC Executive Board will nominate a replacement from the five sports on the official waiting list: golf, karate, roller sports (road racing on inline skates), rugby (the seven-to-a-side version) and squash. The replacement sport will need two-thirds support to be added to the Olympic family; if it gets that, it will need only a simple majority in a second vote to be added to the 2012 program.

The IOC has tried to be methodical in analyzing which sports deserve to remain in--or be added to--the Games. (No sport can be added unless another is removed; at that 2002 Mexico City session Rogge succeeded in getting a 28-sport, 301-event cap placed on the Summer Olympics.) Last fall the Program Commission sent a questionnaire to all Summer Games sports federations as well as governing bodies of the five waiting-list sports, asking them for information in 33 areas, including ticket sales, media coverage, venue costs, television production costs, environmental impact and gender equity. The resulting report, due to be sent to IOC members this month, will not rank the sports by desirability or present its own conclusions; nevertheless, some federations are concerned that the inevitable comparisons could turn sports against one another and damage the Games.

Members of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) are so upset that a vote on their future is even being taken that the organization's president, Denis Oswald, called a special ASOIF session for this week in Geneva to try to clear the air. Outspoken former international sailing federation president Paul Henderson fired off an angry letter to the heads of the federations in support of ASOIF members, saying the IOC vote reduces the federations to "the level of beggars." Passionately expressing the sports federations' sense of entitlement, he wrote, "IFs [international federations] hold Sport together every day of every year so that the IOC can come along at the end of each Quadrennium and supply the Fireworks. Yes IFs are rewarded financially for what IFs bring to the table, but it is our right, not a handout from the IOC." (Sailing, interestingly, sent 400 athletes to the Athens Olympics--roughly the number for golf, karate, roller sports, rugby and squash if all were added to the Games.)

Elimination from the Olympics would mean the loss of both the prestige of participating on the world's largest athletic stage and the substantial financial rewards cited by Henderson. Television revenue from Athens enabled the IOC to fork over a record $256 million to ASOIF members for the next quadrennium, a pie divvied up on the basis of a sport's size and popularity. Track and field took home the largest slice, $25.7 million; aquatics (swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo), basketball, cycling, gymnastics, soccer, tennis and volleyball got $12.5 million each, and so on. Some of the IOC funding is used to broaden the popularity of sports--buying softball equipment for schools in Kazakhstan, for example. But a significant portion also goes to pay the administrative expenses of the federations, 16 of which happen to be headquartered in Switzerland, home of the IOC. It's all very chummy, or traditionally has been.

Rogge has found himself caught between the 28 current sports and the five would-be additions. After the Executive Board met in Berlin in April to decide the voting procedures, he seemingly bent over backward to reassure the former: "There should be no anxiety. Reading the [Program Commission] report, I have only one conclusion: We have very strong federations, and strong federations should have nothing to fear."

Rogge later said he wasn't trying to send a message with that assessment. But his comments took some of the sports trying to get into the Games by surprise. "If one had to handicap it, it sounds like no one's going to be voted out," says David Fay, joint secretary of the International Golf Federation. "It makes you wonder why we went through the process."

The waiting-list sports have been lobbying for their cause, and rugby appears to have created the strongest buzz, with golf running second. "There's a lot of talk about rugby sevens being the first one in," says Easton. Both rugby and golf have been in the Olympics before--rugby from 1900 to '24, golf in 1900 and '04. And while golf got a thumbs-up from the Program Commission to be a medal sport at the 1996 Atlanta Games, that proposal was scuttled after many people, including Anita DeFrantz, the senior IOC member from the U.S., learned that the Olympic tournament would be played at all-male Augusta National. Says DeFrantz, "My issue was with Augusta, not golf."

Rugby's World Cup (for 15-man teams) is the third most watched sporting event on television, after the Olympics and soccer's World Cup. Golf's television ratings over the past decade have never been higher. Both sports have upscale demographics, which could boost Olympic sponsorship. Neither relies on judging--a plus--and both are known for good sportsmanship. Rogge played rugby. Tiger plays golf.

But golf has issues. Both the PGA and the European PGA tours are against its inclusion in the Olympics, since once every four years it would take the spotlight off one of their regular events. And even Fay, who is also executive director of the USGA, admits, "The Olympics should be the pinnacle of a sport, and no one could say that about golf without having his nose grow. But if tennis is in, golf should be in."

Rugby has a stronger case. A rugby sevens game can be played in just 15 minutes--14 minutes of running time plus a one-minute halftime. The Olympic championship would be the pinnacle of rugby sevens competition, so the best players would attend. And the entire 12-team tournament could be played in two days. Moreover, it wouldn't require new facilities: The games could be played on the soccer fields used during that sport's preliminary rounds. "Everything we've heard about our proposal has been favorable," says Doug Arnot, head of USA Rugby. "The biggest hurdle will be whether someone is kicked off the island."

Illogically, because of the way the voting is set up, some of the sports most often ridiculed by fans as unworthy of being in the Games--synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, trampoline--won't be in any jeopardy in the balloting. Just as synchro is classified by the IOC as an event within aquatics, so are rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline considered events within gymnastics. IOC members will never vote out such marquee sports as aquatics and gymnastics. That's not to say that the reevaluation process won't focus attention on the much-lampooned sports and perhaps force the IOC to take a harder look at them.

So who should be ousted in the July vote? "Any sport that doesn't send its best athletes to the Games," Arnot offers. "The IOC wants the Olympics to be the top of the mountain."

Baseball and soccer fall short of that standard, but soccer is too popular globally to eliminate. Baseball looks more vulnerable; it has little support in Europe, where more than 40% of IOC members reside, and top major leaguers will never be given time off in midseason to take part in the Olympics.

Softball and modern pentathlon, the other sports targeted in 2002, have marshaled considerable support since and now seem secure enough to pass the vote. In the latter case members seem sympathetic to a tiny sport that is so vulnerable and so embedded in the Games' fabric. (Modern pentathlon was created specifically for the Olympics by Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin.) "I respect President Rogge for taking on this issue," says Bob Ctvrtlik, a former volleyball player and the junior IOC member from the U.S. "He's trying to keep a modern program, and all you're doing by advocating for change is making enemies. But it'll be very difficult to get half the members to vote a sport off. The problem is, you could really put an end to a sport like modern pentathlon with a no vote."

While other sports have been mentioned as candidates for removal--taekwondo, for one, which has just been through an embezzlement scandal involving its federation's former president, and even boxing, which has been rife with judging fiascos--the recent backpedaling by Rogge suggests that all 28 Olympic sports could survive the July vote, though perhaps not unscathed. "I think he's positioning himself for the future," says Easton of the reform-minded IOC president. "Some of the fury will have subsided, and everyone will be a little more receptive to change. Unless there's a problem they're not addressing, I think all the sports that are in now should stay. For this vote I think the message is, Shape up or ship out."

A sport needs MORE THAN 50% of the votes to remain on the 2012 program; if any are voted out, the IOC will look to the waiting list: golf, karate, roller sports, rugby and squash.

Despite words of reassurance from IOC president Rogge, federations are SO UPSET ABOUT THE VOTE that they are holding a special session this week to clear the air.

"The Olympics should be the pinnacle of a sport, and no one could say that about golf without HAVING HIS NOSE GROW," admits Fay. "But if tennis is in, golf should be in."

The SI.com Poll

What sport should be removed from the Olympics?

Synchronized swimming .....32%

Rhythmic gymnastics ...........29%

Baseball...................................23%

Modern pentathlon.................8%

Taekwondo................................8%

What sport should be added to the Olympics?

Rugby.......................................38%

Golf ..........................................29%

Karate ......................................22%

Squash ........................................6%

Roller sports ..............................5%

Based on 1,181 responses to an SI.com poll conducted May 24--27.

Extreme Makeover: Olympic Edition

By dumping the circus acts and toughening qualifying standards, the Games could grow stronger

HERE'S HOW the IOC could do some much needed pruning to make room for new sports and keep its Summer Games program from becoming stagnant.

First, endorse and enforce this smell test: Would an event be just as appropriate with the dancing elephants under the big top? If the answer is yes, call Ringling Bros. and get the circus act out of the Games. Give rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized anything, trampoline and equestrian dressage the boot. Yes, they all require tremendous skill, but so does juggling flaming torches.

Second, drastically reduce the number of athletes in each competition. Use the world championships in each sport to determine who does and doesn't qualify for the Games. The field could then be augmented by the IOC to make sure all 202 Olympic nations would be represented in competition. As an example, there were 2,246 track and field athletes in Athens to compete in 46 events--an average of more than 48 competitors for each discipline. What kind of madness is that? Only the top 12 finishers at the most recent world championships should be guaranteed a spot in the Games, plus the athletes with the next eight best performances over the previous 12 months (a maximum of three entrants per country). A dozen at-large slots would then be reserved to ensure a diverse field and to accommodate contenders who'd had an injury. That would leave 32 competitors per event. If the IOC were to enforce that maximum in track and field alone, it would mean approximately 700 fewer athletes in the opening ceremonies.

But don't stop with track and field. Swimming is nearly as bloated. Aquatics contributed some 1,434 swimmers, divers and water polo players to the throngs in Athens. Eight qualification heats were held in the men's 100-meter breaststroke alone. That's not an Olympics, it's open mike night at the pool. Invariably such largess provides Bob Costas with the opportunity to share a few glib words about the grit of some poor swimmer from Gabon who's shown floundering to the finish after the winner's had a pizza and a beer. Enough. A maximum of four qualification heats per event--32 places. And as part of the trimming, let's eliminate the 200-meter distance in all disciplines. In Athens the same men who won the 100 breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly also won those races at 200. In freestyle the same man, Australia's Ian Thorpe, won both the 200 and the 400. The 200 has become patently redundant.

Keep going. Does the boxing program really need 11 weight classes between 106 (light flyweight) and 200 (super heavyweight) pounds? Trim it to six classes, and the quality of the pugilism would soar.

In Athens there were 17 shooting events and 390 marksmen. Who knew? Who cared? There were 557 rowers, 344 wrestlers, 400 sailors and 386 judo athletes. Among them those five sports contributed 2,077 athletes to the Athens logjam, which is 20% of the 10,500-athlete limit that's been put on future Games. The five sports hoping to be voted into the Olympics--golf, karate, rugby, roller sports and squash--would take up fewer than 500 spots in total. Squash has proposed holding a men's and women's tournament with just 64 players. Golf has asked for just 100 players. Rugby needs 144. If only the existing sports showed such numerical restraint.

As it now stands, the IOC has capped the number of sports at 28. No sport can be voted in until another sport is voted out. But if the fields in each existing Olympic sport were significantly trimmed, there would be room for new sports. Just change the semantics. Tennis, table tennis and badminton are now considered separate sports, as are taekwondo and judo. Yet water polo, swimming and diving are all lumped together under aquatics. The Program Commission could change the nomenclature to "racket sports" and "martial arts." Squash should then be added to the former, karate to the latter. The Olympic program would have 25 sports--and three open spots for rugby, roller sports and golf.

Vote them in, and let the improved Games begin. --E.M.S.

COLOR PHOTODANIEL BEREHULAK/GETTY IMAGES Or Should Rugby Take Its Place for 2012? For rugby to be added, another sport must go--but the IOC has made voting against some sports, like synchronized swimming, oddly complicated.COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Crosnier/DPPI-SIPA/Icon SMI  [See caption above] COLOR PHOTONICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES (BASEBALL)[ OUT? Baseball ] Though Cuba puts on a good show every four years, without major leaguers the Olympic tournament will never rise to greatness. COLOR PHOTODAVID GONZALES/ICON SMI (GOLF)[ IN? Golf ] This would have been a medal sport in Atlanta if organizers hadn't insisted on holding the tournament at all-male Augusta National.COLOR PHOTOKIM KYUNG-HOON/REUTERS (TAEKWONDO)[ OUT? Taekwondo ] COLOR PHOTOPHIL COLE/GETTY IMAGES (SQUASH)[IN? Squash ] COLOR PHOTOPAUL HANNA/REUTERS (GYMNAST)[ OUT? RhythmicGymnastics] Most people couldn't give a hula hoop about this sport, which has been in the Games since 1984.COLOR PHOTOTISH GORMAN (SKATERS)[IN? Roller Sports ] Think Apolo Ohno on asphalt. A road race on in-line skates would roll through the Olympic host city. COLOR PHOTOCHARLES KRUPA/AP (PENTATHLON)[OUT? Modern Pentathlon ] The mix of shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding and running has been targeted before but has deep roots in the Games. COLOR PHOTOCARLOS GUEVARA/REUTERS (KARATE)[IN? Karate ] With 50 million participants and 173 national federations, this martial art has a stronger base than many current Olympic sports.