Has the selection of sports for the Olympic Games become something of a circus?
Back in the 1970s, when I first started working with the Olympic movement, it was a struggle.
In 1976, Montreal was boycotted by the Africans. In 1980, Moscow was boycotted by the USA and many other nations. Working, as I was back then, with Horst Dassler, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the election of Juan Antonio Samaranch as the future IOC president (elected in Moscow in 1980) as, with his dynamic leadership, we could significantly develop the ‘Olympic brand’. In addition to cleaning up the rights, an overhaul of the overall offering was planned, including changing the Olympic calendar to stage events every two years and adding new and attractive sports.
One of Samaranch’s immediate ambitions in building the brand was to ensure the participation of the very best athletes – both professional and amateur – at the Olympics Games. Another was to include the top ‘commercial’ sports.
It was also in the 70s that I first met an infiuential North Korean, Dr Un-Yong K im, who was an advisor to a US shoe importer. In addition to trying to promote Korea internationally, Kim was the head of the World Taekwondo Federation ( WTF), which he founded in May 1973. One of the most lasting impressions of meeting Dr Kim in those days was when my partner in Japan, Jack Sakazaki, and I were invited to the WTF headquarters in Seoul, where we were led into what we thought was a meeting room but turned out to be a hospitality box in the middle of a vast performance hall. In the hall, demonstrating for just Jack and me, were hundreds of taekwondo athletes who performed a display movement in unison that just amazed us. So many people doing a routine in perfect harmony for just two people – it was a beautiful and memorable sight.
Kim was keen to develop taekwondo and certainly wanted to get it on to the Olympic calendar. It was also in the 70s that we were working with the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), which we located in a permanent home in Monaco.
Through GAISF, and with Kim’s Korean backing, we created the first-ever World Games in Santa Clara in 1981. The concept of the World Games was twofold – to provide a ‘shop window’ for those sports not on the Olympic programme to perform on the world’s stage, and for those same sports to promote themselves directly to the Olympic movement. It is interesting to note that following their participation in the World Games in Santa Clara, both taekwondo (initially as a demonstration sport) and badminton (then headed by Craig Reedie) were granted Olympic status. Baseball and softball, which also participated at Santa Clara, were put on the Olympic calendar for Atlanta 1996 through to Beijing 2008.
Samaranch saw the sense in working together with Kim and, on the basis Kim was to get the help for his own sport as well as others, he was instrumental in securing the important (and cooperative) bid from Seoul for the 1988 Olympic Games, which would be the first Games to show off the many new additions.
The Olympic Congress that selected Seoul was hosted in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 1981, when taekwondo, badminton and table tennis (Samaranch had been a table tennis champion) were formally welcomed into the Olympic Games family. So too was tennis, a sport which was making significant strides in the professional world with collaboration between the ITF, with whom we were working on the new Davis Cup format, and the ATP, which was being fostered by my SportsPro co-correspondent Donald Dell.
There were also some interesting discussions back in the 80s about whether other sports, such as bridge and chess, could be included in the winter Olympics as a way to open up the Games beyond those nations that just participated on snow and ice, but these ideas were not taken further forward.
Since the major expansion of the Olympic calendar, we have also seen the inclusion of golf and rugby sevens voted from a list of seven sports by secret ballot in Copenhagen at the 2009 Olympic Congress, when karate came in a close third.
The problem, however, is that unlike before when there was a very specific plan to add strength to the Olympic brand, the current approach has become something of a farce. We now have a rather odd bidding process that will add another sport to the Olympic calendar but, to make room for that sport, the IOC has had to eject an existing sport – the longstanding Olympic sport of wrestling.
Eight sports are vying to be selected by the IOC for that one vacant slot. Baseball, cable wakeboarding, karate, roller sports, softball, sport climbing, squash and wushu have all invested heavily in their bid presentations and ensured that they have met the IOC’s demanding evaluation criteria. However, wrestling has also now entered the bidding race. What happens if wrestling is the sport selected? Who would then consider this a worthwhile exercise?
Olympic sport selection was a little simpler in the Olympic movement back in the 70s and 80s when it was all about the best way to build the brand. Now the brand is built it needs nurturing, it needs refreshing, it needs to be concerned about hosting costs. Is this sport selection merry-go-round really relevant?