x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sports compete for place in the London Olympics

It remains to be seen whether baseball or softball - let alone fan favourites from yesteryear like blasting pigeons from the sky - can lobby their way back onto the Olympic roster.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Among the multitudes of climbers who scaled Mount Everest last week in the once yearly window of clement Himalayan weather, one carried a poignant memento.

Kenton Cool, a veteran of nine previous successful Everest ascents, had about his person a historic gold medal belonging to Lt Col Edward Strutt, the famous British mountaineer.

In 1922, Strutt had been second in command of an expedition to scale the world's highest peak. The team got within half a kilometre of their goal before being beaten into a hasty retreat by a sudden avalanche.

Such was the adulation for their gallant failure that two years later at the Chamonix Winter Olympics, all 21 surviving members of the team were honoured with gold medals for the most notable feat of mountaineering during the previous four years. After the ceremony Strutt vowed that one day he would carry his prized gong to the elusive reaches of Everest's peak.

He never did. By the time the mountain was finally conquered in 1953, Strutt was dead and so too was mountaineering as an Olympic sport. It had been quietly dropped in 1936.

Many other physical activities shared the same fate. Looking at the first modern Olympics at the turn of the 20th century, it seems they were a world away from the highly organised, billion-dollar industry of today's tournament.

In fact, many of the competitions resembled the kind of activities you'd encounter on a traditional village green sports day: tug of war, rope climbing, swimming obstacle courses (in which competitors had to climb poles and swim under boats) and the 56-pound toss (hurling a 25 kilogram weight over a pole vault bar) all had their shining moment.

It gets more bizarre: pigeon shooting, using live pigeons, was at the 1900 Paris Games. While spectators at the 1906 Athens Games would have been able to cheer on pistol duellists firing at frock coat-clad mannequins with targets pinned to their chests.

Of course, bigger, more mainstream sports have also been pulled from the Olympic docket, including cricket, rugby, golf, lacrosse and polo.

Now, baseball and softball can be added to that list too.

Baseball, an official sport since 1992, and softball, since 1996, were scratched from the upcoming London event after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) concluded that they were both too American and not enough nations actually competed (only eight countries took part in the 2008 baseball contest).

The US sporting authorities were none too pleased and the International Baseball Federation and the International Softball Federation are currently putting the final touches on a joint bid for reinstatement, hoping for a change of heart from the IOC when they meet in Buenos Aires next year.

The mountaineering authorities, meanwhile, are also refusing to accept that the days when you could earn a gold medal for scaling the heights are gone, as the International Federation of Sport Climbing is also pushing the case for a reprise.

However, other sports are currently garnering much more favourable noises from the IOC. Rugby (in the sevens format) and golf are definites for reinstatement in 2016. While the shorter form of cricket is a hot tip for return four years later, mainly, one suspects, because the Twenty20 at 2020 headlines were impossible for marketing executives to resist.

The IOC's main concern when formulating the event's programme seems to be avoiding making the tournament too unwieldy. The governing body also maintains a policy of allowing a maximum of 28 sports to be contested at each summer games, although only 26 will be staged at London 2012.

So it remains to be seen whether baseball or softball - let alone fan favourites from yesteryear like blasting pigeons from the sky - can lobby their way back onto the roster.

Once you're out of the Olympic club it's an onerous task to get back in and it may be an uphill struggle beyond even the powers of Strutt and his comrades.