Nick Butler

Whisper it quietly, but in the spirit of festivities I am going to begin with some rare praise for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The list of new disciplines and events proposed for inclusion on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic programme revealed by insidethegames last week provoked predictable derision. Too confusing a process, too much inconsistency between what different International Federations have put forward and, as my colleague Liam Morgan has already pointed out, the sheer presence of a mixed synchronised swimming duet...

But, despite the pitfalls, I think the IOC do deserve some credit for at least attempting to evolve the process, even if they have done so in their usual cloak and daggers way.

The IOC have already shaken things up by allowing Organising Committees to propose specific new sports when hosting the Games. It made perfect sense to bring baseball and softball back in one of the sports’ hotbeds and, whatever misgivings people have about the arrival of skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing, they will certainly add a sense of intrigue to Tokyo 2020 as well as innovation.

The three new disciplines up for consideration of 3x3 basketball, high diving and BMX Freestyle form part of a similar trend. Most other proposed changes across the 15 sports we know about come with the aim of improving gender equality (The International Gymnastics Federation are adding further credence to their status as the most useless governing body for media relations by refusing to confirm if they have proposed anything).

Trouble is, there is a huge amount of inconsistency here and virtually every proposal for change is fraught with difficulty.

Federations representing canoeing, rowing and shooting have all taken the painstaking process of removing much loved events from the programme in order to make way for gender equal ones.

Canoeing have removed the C2 slalom and well as two sprint events to make way for the first three Olympic C-class divisions. Rowing are scrapping the lightweight men’s four for an open-weight women’s events while shooting are replacing the men's 50 metre rifle prone, 50m pistol and double trap with three mixed team competitions.

All three were tough decisions and the shooting proposal in particular seems to be having the impact of a bullet ripping through the heart of the sport.

Canoeing, rowing and shooting have all made hard choices to cut events from the Olympic programme in order to allow room for new ones ©Getty Images
Canoeing, rowing and shooting have all made hard choices to cut events from the Olympic programme in order to allow room for new ones ©Getty Images

But, hold on, it then appears that other sports are proposing new events in the name of gender equality but without replacing old ones.

In the cases of archery, judo, modern pentathlon, triathlon and taekwondo, a mixed team or relay event consisting largely or solely of athletes already on the programme is being proposed. This makes some sense.

I am less convinced about the proposals put forward by aquatics, boxing and table tennis.

In addition to the demand for new synchronised swimming and high diving formats, 10 extra pool swimming events have been proposed, consisting of four male, four female and two mixed relays. Boxing are proposing two yet-to-be-clarified new weight categories without removing any male ones. Table tennis are pushing for the return of men’s and women’s doubles after they were scrapped in favour of new team competitions before Beijing 2008. Mixed doubles would also be added to take the total number of medal events to seven, something especially questionable considering how this will virtually guarantee China three extra golds.

Mixed swimming relays are particularly exciting given the ground made up on specific legs in which men and women are racing each other. Surely they should therefore replace two of the existing freestyle and medley relays, while the women’s 1,500 metres freestyle should come in instead of the existing 800m? And, given how boxing have faced huge problems with their judging system and anti-doping programme, are they really a sport which deserves new events? If their plan is to reduce the numbers of athletes competing in each male weight categories to ensure there is no rise in the total quota, would this not make a mockery of an Olympic medal by having too few in each event?

A similar point could arguably be made with the basketball proposal.

When I asked IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell about what exactly they were looking for in new events, gender equality and “adding something new” were the main two answers. Gender equality is not being shoehorned in just for the sake of it, McConnell insisted, because they have already found links to greater participation and funding for female sport. Innovation applies also to events already on the programme, he added, with the likes of sailing and wrestling considering changes to the format rather than the programme. 

The only other criteria put forward concerned “creating greater harmony" between Olympic and World Championship schedules, something which perhaps explains the aquatics proposals.

There were two rather large elephants in the room.

Firstly, whether a sport adds commercial benefits? And secondly, politics and the question of which IFs prove most adept at playing the complex game of bargaining and negotiations?

McConnell would probably not have admitted the first as a factor, and definitely would not have conceded the second, but both are clearly crucial. Golf was certainly helped by its anticipated broadcasting and sponsorship benefit for the IOC coffers when it was added to the 2016 programme; a luxury that the likes of squash could not match. There is surely huge commercial potential in basketball 3x3 while an extended swimming programme would also help boost American and Asian television audiences. I struggle to see the same benefit in mixed synchronised swimming or in the 50km race walk, an event the IOC seem to be pushing to be removed.

The whole process smacks of tit-for-tat politics and concessions.

Increasing female events in the Olympics has been linked to funding and participation rises, the IOC claim ©Getty Images
Increasing female events in the Olympics has been linked to funding and participation rises, the IOC claim ©Getty Images

According to the rumour mill, the International Cycling Union (UCI) reluctantly accepted a proposal to move the Tokyo 2020 Olympic velodrome outside the host city to Izu in return for gaining two extra track events on the programme, probably in male and female madison events. The UCI would seemingly rather have this than BMX Freestyle, which the IOC had hoped could share an outdoor venue with skateboarding.

Again, I have no way of knowing this for certain, but several people have told us that when the IOC Executive Board initially met to consider scrapping sports for Tokyo in 2013, Juan Antonio Samaranch immediately spoke in support in modern pentathlon before CK Wu backed taekwondo, a sport for which he is a “special advisor”.

But when wrestling was mentioned, there was no one to bang the drum and they took the easy but ultimately rash option of dumping it from the programme. It was then returned later that year at the IOC Session in Buenos Aires after a frantic yet effective Russian-American led lobbying effort.

As an aside, the IOC will also vote at this year's Session in Lima on the full sports which will make up the programme for the 2024 Games. Considering we have heard virtually no discussions about this in the corridors and lobbies of the Olympic world in recent months, it seems likely the existing 28 are going to be put forward (despite the well publicised intentions of cricket and other non-Olympic sports). Was this some sort of deal agreed in return for allowing the five additional events, I wonder?

To return to the lobbying process, a similar dialogue has taken place in recent weeks within the International Association of Athletics Federations over racewalking. I get the impression than many people in the sport would not really mind the 50km walk being scrapped. Considering recent doping problems as well as gender inequality, you can partly understand why. But a vocal lobbying effort spearheaded by athletes and officials from a few specific countries makes this more trouble than it is worth.

An IOC suggestion for the International Shooting Sport Federation to consider laser events has been met with similar hostility.

You therefore have to pity McConnell having to deal with all these vested interests and you do wonder if some IFs are too conservative for their own good.

On the other hand, IFs are right in hailing the importance of tradition. Probably the best example of sporting innovation in recent years is the introduction of Twenty20 cricket, but this has been done alongside rather than instead of the existing Test format. Longstanding events should not be unceremoniously dumped from the programme, but neither should they be kept for the sake of it. Evolutionary change, such as what we have seen in modern pentathlon, should be encouraged.

I also think the global spread of sports is important. The relative lack of competitive countries is seen as a challenge for cricket, where there are barely a dozen top level teams. Then again, these include India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, five nations which enjoy few other Olympic successes. Success for Egyptian and Malaysian squash players should always count in favour of that sport, I feel, while Fiji’s first Olympic medal is a key part of the attraction of rugby sevens.

Wrestling massively improved its political lobbying game before the Buenos Aires IOC Session where the sport was returned to the Olympic programme ©Getty Images
Wrestling massively improved its political lobbying game before the Buenos Aires IOC Session where the sport was returned to the Olympic programme ©Getty Images

Sitting in the office yesterday, we immediately drew up proposals which would have a far more radical impact on the Olympic programme. I proposed scrapping any judged event while a colleague suggested a “royal rumble” between judo, taekwondo and karate to decide which one martial art should feature.

In a slightly more serious vein, insidethegames reader Martin Vickers commented on one of our stories proposing including team sports for which the Olympics is not “the pinnacle” - i.e. baseball/softball, football, basketball and cricket - on a rotating basis. I personally quite like this idea. My colleague David Owen also still fancies shifting some indoor sports from the Summer to the Winter programme.

However, we cannot expect any really radical proposals for the time being. It is too complex to negotiate and, despite the well-publicised Olympic bidding problems, things are yet so precarious to justified such a fundamental shift.

“To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often,” former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is quoted as saying. It is not quite Thomas Bach's "change or be changed" but is probably more accurate.

Expect more little tweaks at Tokyo 2020 and beyond rather than wholehearted reforms, then, and the IOC should be praised for at least trying to innovate and evolve the programme.

Click here to vote on our latest insidethegames poll about which new events should be added to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic programme.