BETWEEN now and August 2012, when the British Olympic Association will attempt to dazzle the watching world with its opening ceremony in London, be prepared to be blitzed with an increasing barrage of column inches and TV newsreels hyping up the self-styled ‘greatest sporting occasion in the world’, this esteemed newspaper included.
The same frenzied coverage will doubtless occur for the 2014 Winter Games in Russia and the 2016 summer games in Rio in those respective host countries.
Over the years, the inclusion of certain sports, particularly for the summer Olympics, has often led to widespread debate, often leading to a newly-Olympicised sport being derided for not being fit to be given such status (anyone for beach volleyball?).
For 2012, women’s boxing will be staged for the first time and in 2016 golf and rugby 7s were given the nod over a number of other sports – not surprisingly, not everyone agreed.
Now, at the risk of alienating several of my colleagues, I just don’t get golf. In much the same way that those same colleagues often look back at me with vacant expressions when I start eulogising about ice hockey, it’s a safe bet that whenever discussions about Tiger Woods or Padraig Harrington pop up, I tend to glaze over and pop off to make a cup of tea or find that tidying my desk suddenly holds great appeal.
Why it has become an Olympic sport is difficult to understand, but not totally surprising – it hardly embodies the ‘amateur’ spirit often associated with the Games, certainly in terms of the highly-paid and famous individuals expected to be taking part in Rio.
And when news of its admission to 2016 was revealed, it was received by some in a similarly negative way that tennis was when that was given Olympic status back in the 90s – particularly when it came at the expense of other sports considered by many to be more in keeping with the Olympic ideal.
One sport to miss out on garnering enough votes to be given Olympic status at both London and Rio was squash. Some of you may have assumed it was already an Olympic sport and when you consider a number of the sports that will form part of London 2012, it becomes even more difficult to work out why it isn’t there.
After all, other racquet sports will form part of the Games with badminton, table tennis and tennis now all long-established parts of the summer schedule – why not squash? Arguably the most athletic and physically demanding of them all, it is played all around the world, is widely played by both men and women, young and old and is, seemingly, well-governed and administered. Therefore, you would think, it would be a shoo-in for the Games.
On a purely local level, it’s particularly disheartening when you realise that, for a number of years, Yorkshire has produced a string of world-class players. Of the current crop, Sheffield’s world No 1 Nick Matthew is following in the footsteps of Pontefract’s Lee Beachill, who was the world’s leading player back in 2004.
With Matthew’s rival James Willstrop, from Leeds, now back up to fourth in the world – he was briefly world No 2 in 2005 – and Harrogate’s Jenny Duncalf world No 2 in the women’s game, success has been achieved on a regular basis over the past few years.
Last year, Matthew became the first Englishman to become world champion, defeating Willstrop in a thrilling final in Saudi Arabia in December. He became world No 1 at the turn of the year, completing a memorable 2010 for the 30-year-old, who also captured two Commonwealth gold medals in India.
One criticism levelled at squash is that it doesn’t translate well to live TV. But one thing the Commonwealth Games in India showed is that squash could, if given a similar media platform to many other sports, produce plenty of interest and coverage, with the overall success of the British team undoubtedly helping it to entertain the millions watching around the world.
Like many sports, it’s much better live. I remember going to my first professional squash night several years ago thinking I was a fairly decent player at the time, believing that an ability to hit the ball as hard as possible and occasionally being able to sustain a rally for longer than 10 seconds was all that was required to be a ‘decent’ player.
I was blown away by how fast, combative and, at times, downright niggly, the game could be particularly the higher up the game you got, as I discovered while covering the two-hour plus epic British Open final in 2009 between Matthew and Willstrop in Manchester.
With plenty of other British talent at the top-end of both the men’s and women’s tours, it is therefore all the more disappointing that they will not be able to showcase their undoubted skill, energy and competitiveness on what is often labelled the biggest sporting stage of all, particularly next year in London when Matthew, Willstrop and Duncalf would have been genuine candidates for medals on home soil – gold ones at that.
It remains to be seen whether the leading figures in the world of squash can muster enough effort to try for a third successive time to get the sport admitted for 2020 – you couldn’t blame them if chose not to, given the futility of the whole process.
But let’s hope they do and, if successful, it would be no more than the sport deserves although, by then, it will be too late for the likes of Matthew, Willstrop and Duncalf.
Phil Harrison, Sports Writer, Yorkshire Post
1st March 2011
Reproduced by kind permission of the Yorkshire Post in England