Alan Hubbard: Sheep shearing on the Olympic programme? "I don't believe it!"

Thursday, 09 February 2012
Alan Hubbard_17-06-11Just about every muscle-flexing activity practised by man – and woman – and quite a few that aren't, are jostling to climb aboard the Olympic Games bandwagon. From angling to arm-wrestling, chess to cheerleading, bog-snorkelling to ballroom dancing, darts to dominoes, all seem to think they deserve to share the spotlight of the five ring circus.

However, I admit to doing a bit of a "Victor Meldrew" when reading an agency report saying that sheep-shearers now desire to join the Olympic elite. "I don't believe it!" I declared aloud at the words: "The time has come to elevate sheep-shearing's sporting status to the ultimate world stage." According to a New Zealand farm lobby group, "the world's top shearers are athletes who take it to another level."

Apparently, it is already recognised as a sport in New Zealand and Australia and has pressed for inclusion in the Commonwealth Games. But the Olympics? Surely they are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. More seriously, there is an upcoming tussle for future recognition among the 28 currently recognised Olympic sports, and which I hope will see victory for one which has been mysteriously overlooked for too long.

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This will be the third time of asking for squash to get into the Olympics. It tried unsuccessfully for 2012 and 2016, and is now up against seven other 2020 wannabes: karate, roller sports, baseball, softball, sport climbing, wakeboarding and, wait for it, wushu.

Of these, karate seems the most legitimate contender but is it really more worthy than other already established contact sports like judo, taekwondo, boxing and wrestling?

Baseball and softball, dropped for London, may well have had their day in the Olympic sun.

Sport climbing? Isn't that something kids do on walls in leisure centres while their mums are having a cafe latte?

Wakeboarding? Does the Games really need more fun-in-the-sun seekers skimming over water? And as for wushu, it sounds like something to be sneezed at but is actually yet another martial art, almost exclusively practised in China.

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Actually there will be nine sports in contention for in 2020 because in addition to the eight already bidding there will be one that must drop out after London 2012 to accommodate the inclusion of golf and rugby sevens in Rio 2016.

In my view squash surely has the most compelling case – and I say that without the sound of grinding axes, never having played the game myself. For it now seems to tick all the boxers in terms of its growing global popularity, diversity of champions, pure athleticism and increased spectator appeal.

Moreover, it might produce medallists from several nations which otherwise rarely get a whiff of Olympic glory.

Given the choice, I would say that squash is rather more deserving of an Olympic berth than its racket cousin, tennis, where a gold medal, is less valued than a Grand Slam victory.

"We certainly feel we have a much stronger case than before as we have learned from things the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have told us," says Andrew Shelley, newly appointed British chief executive of the World Squash Federation (WSF). "Making the sport more telegenic has been one of the most significant moves. We are confident but there is a long way to go, but at least this time we are not competing against rugby sevens and golf which were such strong contenders."

As it happens, of the prime movers and shakers behind the strategy which saw rugby sevens rolling up, from Rio was Mike Lee, the promotional architect of London 2012's successful bid and also that of Rio 2016 and the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

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Lee (pictured), sport's supreme spin doctor, has been recruited by squash to fight its corner, a shrewd move, as he has established valuable contacts at IOC level where he is well regarded. "We feel we have been reasonably professional on the past two occasions, but Mike will give us an extra professional edge," says Shelley.

Lee is already at work on the sport's bidding blueprint. He tells me: "Squash has learned lessons from its previous campaigns and has worked very hard at modernising the presentation. It is definitely more televisual. The glass walled courts can show all the angles of shots and are great for spectators. There is a video review system and the use of 'super slow-mo's'.

"Some of the venues for events are iconic, like Grand Central station in New York and beside the Pyramids in Egypt. This year's British Open will be at the O2.

"The fact that it is played among nations other than the traditional ones should also help, as it did with rugby sevens. It will be good to see new nations possibly coming to the podium.  It fits very well with the universal message of the Olympic Games. Also, because there are now so many squash courts in so many countries, you have an increasing number of people playing the game for fitness and leisure."

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Shelley (pictured left with Nicol David), who worked for the English Squash Federation for 18 years before running the women's professional tour, adds: "We have a great product in squash which is an easy sport to stage, but we know we have needed to place our bid on a higher footing. We are a worldwide sport played in 190 countries by 20 million people. Squash is youthful and athletic which has had world champions from every continent. Through the men's tour, and now the women's tour, we have improved the quality of television coverage and it has become a much more spectator and media friendly sport.

"We think we know now what the IOC are looking for and we feel we have a very good chance.  If you look at the current scene there are top players from places as diverse as Egypt and Malaysia. Squash will give the opportunity for some players to win Olympic medals from countries who otherwise would be unlikely to do so in other sports."

GB have a particularly good track record in the sport too, so the nation's medal tally would also quite probably be enhanced. At the moment the top English players are just ahead of the top Egyptian and French players. England currently boasts the world's top two players in the men's game, fellow Yorkshiremen James Willstrop and Nick Matthew, whose long-standing rivalry is akin to that of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett on the track.

Just two weeks after battling for the world number one ranking in New York, the pair renew combat this week in the British National Championships in Manchester. In the first ever all-English final of the prestigious PSA World Series Tournament of Champions at Grand Central Station, Sheffield-based Matthew – who topped the world rankings throughout 2011 before Willstrop replaced him in January – reclaimed pole position.

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On the world stage their closest challenger is Ramy Ashour (pictured), a 24-year-old swashbuckling Egyptian. There are also emerging stars from Hong Kong and Mexico.

Supporting the 2020 Olympic campaign is Malaysia's women's world number one, Nicol David, a record six times world open champion who says, "There is no question that the Olympic Games would be the absolute pinnacle of my career and I would happily trade all of my six world titles for an Olympic gold.

The final decision is earmarked for the IOC session in September 2013 in Buenos Aires. But this spring, the IOC will send questionnaires to the bidding federations.  There will then be an IOC evaluation event which is likely to be for squash, the Hong Kong Open in November. The sports will present to the IOC Programme Commission at the end of this year or early next and next February, one of the sports which participated in London will be dropped.  It is not yet clear whether all the sports on the current list will go all the way to the decisive IOC vote.

At the moment, the sport looking most vulnerable in London is taekwondo, currently one at which Britain has become increasingly successful. There has also been speculation about the future of the modern pentathlon and equestrianism.  Had the recent investigation into amateur boxing not cleared the sport of the corruption allegations relating to Azerbaijan, that too, might have been in question as there are elements within the IOC who have long wanted to see it removed.  However, this is now highly unlikely with the introduction of women boxers.

All of the 26 sports in London will be technically assessed during the Games by the IOC as to their sustainability for future Olympics.

"People have seen big changes in squash, they like the innovations, and there is unity among the various national federations. So far, the feedback has been very good.  We just have to keep going until the finishing tape," says Lee.

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Having been pipped last time by a larger oval ball and an even smaller golf ball surely squash cannot be squeezed out again. Otherwise we might as well start counting sheep.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title from Atlanta to Zaire.
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