x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Squash must bounce back as a sport after Olympics rejection

Squash may need a harder-nosed approach after missing out on becoming an Olympic sport for the third time in a row.

The World Squash Federation has come up against a wall trying to get Olympic recognition and James Willstrop says it is time to move on. Andrew Dent / AFP
The World Squash Federation has come up against a wall trying to get Olympic recognition and James Willstrop says it is time to move on. Andrew Dent / AFP

What squash needs is a fraternal swap. If squash, for instance, had N Srinivasan instead of his younger brother N Ramachandran as the president of the World Squash Federation (WSF), then who would dare leave it out of the Olympics?

Who. Would. Dare?

Srinivasan, is the head of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

Some would say that because he heads the BCCI he runs the entire sport.

He is “estranged” from his younger brother Ramachandran, whose stake in the family company India Cements (one of India’s largest) Srinivasan bought out in 2009.

Srinivasan’s reputation – when it comes to making money, consolidating power and getting what he wants – is such that you would have to believe that if he was the president of the WSF, then it is likely that the sport would have been constantly rejecting pleas from the Olympics to join and not, as is the reality, the other way round.

“The Olympics?” you could see Srinivasan asking. “Why is that important when I have squash?”

As it is when squash was again rejected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Buenos Aires 10 days ago, the sport was left, in the words of Ramachandran, heart-broken.

It is difficult to imagine his older brother expressing such sentiments because it would reveal a softness at the core of the squash bid, a naivete even.

We could theorise about why squash missed the cut for a third time in a row but none of the reasons would sound particularly palatable: not the fact that wrestling was always bound to get back in once it had been curiously removed in the first place; or that squash is not particularly broadcast friendly.

The theory that there are too many racket sports already on the roster doesn’t really hold water, although that raises the question – again – of whether tennis should be in the Olympics given that a medal at the Games is hardly the pinnacle of a tennis player’s career.

None of those reasons resound as much as the overriding sense that squash wanted Olympic recognition too much – that squash has demeaned itself in hankering so desperately after Olympic status over the past decade.

It has forgotten that it has always had a robust, well-developed tour, or that it possesses an enviable diversity of nationalities, or that it has an immense and rich history.

“In trying to please the IOC we have been almost reduced to serial bouts of begging, and even that hasn’t worked,” lamented James Willstrop, one of the sport’s leading players and faces of the campaign, in a column he wrote after squash failed in its bid.

He was talking about the unmistakable signs of desperation that a hard-nosed and ferocious administrator, such as Srinivasan, would never allow. Squash put together a wonderful, potentially epic campaign and pulled in big-name support from tennis, but it lacked essential political savvy.

Sports do not make the Olympics roster through a process of sentiment: mostly it is the result of clever and unrelenting politicking in some hotel lobby or boardroom.

It requires precisely the kind of deal making that Srinivasan — or any big-time administrator of a big-time sport — revels in: negotiated from actual or imagined positions of strength; favours called in ruthlessly, favours doled out shamelessly.

Squash needs to value itself as an incredibly athletic and demanding sport, which is played at all levels in a large number of countries. Squash needs to start owning its biggest tournaments again and making stars out of its players.

Maybe that can come from exploring the Indian market, considering some kind of IPL-isation to generate more money, more sponsorship and greater attention. It needs to be noisier, less kind, less subservient.

That realisation, thankfully, might now be emerging.

“We don’t necessarily need it [Olympic status],” Willstrop said. “We know what we are about and it may well be that we now have to find our own way.”