Nick Butler

You can never know with these votes, and it is always rash to make bold predictions. Yet it seemed a fairly safe bet that baseball and softball would be among the sports proposed for Tokyo 2020 Olympic inclusion by Games organisers today.

So far as we could see, karate, rather than squash, was being mooted as another likely choice, while there was always a chance that a youth oriented event would be selected: skateboarding under the guise of roller skating, perhaps.

But for the five sports of baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing to all be recommended took us by surprise.

On the one hand it was exciting. The prospect of new disciplines on sport’s biggest stage is always attractive, and to have some genuinely new and innovative events is doubly so.

Taking place in an artificial wave pool due to the lack of natural waves in Japan in the summer months, shortboard surfing would bring a new vibe to the Games – expect plenty of “stoked” athletes – while street and park skateboarding would serve to showcase a host city as well as a growing penchant for fashion within the sports world.

Climbing, a sport with two rival governing bodies which has hardly gone out of the way to run any sort of public relations campaign during the bidding process, was perhaps the least expected option. Yet, having had a painful and tiring but also rather fun introduction to it in the “Sports Lab” during last summer’s Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, I can vouch that it is both a true physical test of strength, power, agility and endurance, and something requiring different skills from any other sports on the programme.

Climbing (in the background) was the surprise recommendation for Tokyo 2020 while, despite appearing alongside it at the Nanjing 2014 Sports Lab, wushu (in foreground) missed out ©ITG
Climbing (in the background) was the surprise recommendation for Tokyo 2020 while, despite appearing alongside it at the Nanjing 2014 Sports Lab, wushu (in foreground) missed out ©ITG

All will be relatively straightforward and affordable to incorporate, at least that is what the respective governing bodies are insisting, and the total projection of 474 additional athletes fits within the upper limit of 500 imposed under the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Agenda 2020 reform process.

It is hard to get too excited about the addition of yet another martial art in karate, while squash can count itself as unfortunate to have missed out once again – along with bowling and wushu – although you feel that after being handed a second chance for inclusion after missing out to wrestling in the initial race in 2013, questions must be asked of President N Ramachandran and other members of the World Squash Federation leadership.

But there does seem something strange, haphazard even, about the selections and it will now be interesting to see if they are effectively rubber-stamped by the IOC or subject to a thorough evaluation which may lead to one or more being omitted; perhaps the more likely approach.

It is admirable to focus on youth and to attempt to, in the often-uttered words of IOC President Thomas Bach, “get couch potatoes off the couch”. But is this really what the youth want?

I might not be the best embodiment of the world's under 25 population, but most young people I know would far prefer watching or playing a sport like athletics or swimming or, dare I say it, squash, than skateboarding, and there does seem an element of graying 50-plus somethings who make up the top brass of international sport trying hard to appear “down with the kids”.

Whether it came from the IOC or Tokyo 2020 I don’t know, but it appears that ever since the beginning of the process someone has decided that skateboarding would make a good addition.

This is despite the International Skateboarding Federation, which represented the sport in Nanjing, not being recognised by the IOC so seemingly not eligible to apply, while the World Skateboarding Federation which also claims to speak for the sport appears to have no national members.

The question of who would organise an Olympic skateboarding competition needs to be answered ©Getty Images
The question of who would organise an Olympic skateboarding competition needs to be answered ©Getty Images

But when the powers that be call for something in sport, it is usually pushed through somehow; hence skateboarding being incorporated in roller skating’s proposal alongside speed events. Shades of snowboarding becoming part of the International Ski Federation all over again, and the news did not go down well in the grassroots of the sport, many of whom are not overly keen on the idea of Olympic inclusion anyway.

Today’s announcement that the only recommended roller skating event would, in fact, be of the board variety makes a mockery of the whole process.

In a suitably bland statement, the International Roller Skating Federation claimed to be “extremely pleased” with the announcement. But how could they really be because no true roller skating event has been proposed. It’s as if they have been told to include skateboarding to boost their own chances only to receive the sucker-punch of not having their own event included.

The other challenge appears to be the low number of athletes and teams able to compete in each of these events. The World Baseball Softball Confederation, an amalgamation of the two sports, has 139 members but only six teams will compete in the men’s baseball and women’s softball formats proposed. After we asked them today if this number would pose a challenge, the body insisted they are “ready to play our role to whatever we can do to help realise the Tokyo 2020 Games vision”.

But is having more and more sports at the Games really preferable to having more depth within existing events and thus a higher standard of competition? It is an old quantity versus quality argument, but there are frustrations within many sports already on the programme over how few athletes can compete at the Games.

Ah, but greater flexibility was a key part of Agenda 2020, we would undoubtedly be told, and this means it is just about gospel in Olympic circles these days.

We were waiting for who would mention the hallowed reform process first today, and it was the WBSC who won, just, ahead of the International Surfing Association and then the IOC itself. They squeezed in their thanks for President Bach’s “vision” in between rather nauseating references to home runs and home plates (although surfing, who claim to be “riding a wave” of growth, were not much better...)

IOC President Thomas Bach's Agenda 2020 reform process has vowed to enhance the flexibility of the Olympic programme ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach's Agenda 2020 reform process has vowed to enhance the flexibility of the Olympic programme ©Getty Images

We have speculated before how Agenda 2020 was envisaged as a rhetorical device as much as anything else, broad and vague enough to be evolved around events as much as events were adapted around it.

Yet with Tokyo, the initial test case as they were awarded the Games soon-enough before the approval of the 40 reforms last December for changes to be permitted, it seems to be getting out of control.

A raft of venue changes have already been introduced this year, saving an estimated $1 billion (£650 million/€890 million). Sustainable and cost-effective this may be, the Games is also now in danger of losing some of its appeal and ambiance, with events taken out of the projected city centre hub and scattered almost willy-nilly around the city and beyond it.

And, despite all of these changes to venues and sports, many of these benefits have been tarnished by the National Stadium abandonment, ironically due to the expense and extravagance of the initial plans.

Given all of this, It will be fascinating to see if the IOC Executive Board do approve all five sports, or suggest something different. 

As a colleague wryly observed earlier, the five sports have now survived the audition, and got through judges' houses.

Although their focus towards the whims of youth has had an element of reality TV about it, I don’t think the IOC are seriously considering introducing live shows and public votes like The X-Factor for key decisions – that one may wait for Agenda 2030 – but the final barrier of IOC ratification could yet be the biggest hurdle to clear.