Nick Butler

The highlight of last week’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board press conference in Lausanne was a complicated analogy about two big birds circling somewhere between the sky, a roof and somebody’s hand. In terms of clarity, it was about as helpful as footballer Eric Cantona’s memorable bird-related quote about seagulls, sardines and a trawler when sentenced for kung-fu kicking a spectator in 1995.

We ended up learning little we did not already know about the nuts and bolts of how two Olympic Games will be awarded at the same time later this year. If anything, the bird metaphor was most useful in illustrating Thomas Bach’s continual struggles with answering a question in anything approaching a straightforward manner.

It was therefore refreshing that the “dress rehearsal” announcement of new events and disciplines due to appear at Tokyo 2020 proved more interesting.

By only focusing on existing sports already on the programme, it was an evolutionary change rather than a radical shift. But it was certainly more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

In came 3x3 basketball, a schoolyard version of the game in which only one basket is used, and a BMX freestyle event in which riders perform judged tricks in what appears to the untrained eye to be a skatepark.

Mixed relays were added in the sports of athletics, swimming and triathlon. Mixed doubles table tennis and mixed team competitions in archery and judo will feature alongside two extra fencing team competitions, two additional distance freestyle races in the pool and two track cycling madisons.

Canoeing, rowing and shooting have all replaced men’s events with female or mixed ones. Boxing will do this as well, albeit less willingly after being ordered to cut two men’s divisions to accommodate two extra female ones. Weightlifting are the biggest “loser” after gender equality was ensured not by adding an extra women’s event, as requested, but by cutting a men’s one.

3x3 basketball was among new disciplines added to the Olympic programme ©FIBA
3x3 basketball was among new disciplines added to the Olympic programme ©FIBA

Basketball is the only sport to enjoy an increased number of athletes as quotas were cut elsewhere. Athletics will lose 105 places while swimming and water polo face a collective decrease of 40. BMX freestyle has been added by cutting quotas in road, mountain bike and existing BMX events. Rowing will lose 24 athletes, sailing and shooting 30, wrestling 56 and weightlifting 64.

Unsurprisingly, all of this has split opinion. Traditionalists believe that the Olympics should stick to tried and tested events and stop giving in to the whims the day. “Too many events. Turning Games into Parks & Rec end of summer competition,” tweeted my less-than-impressed journalistic colleague Philip Hersh.

But in uncertain times it is important to try new things and change is certainly required both to reinvigorate and appeal to young people. Look at how Twenty20 cricket has revolutionised that sport by complimenting rather than subverting the traditional Test format.

The trick is to ensure balance. I still have doubts about the new sports approved last year. Skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing seemed too immature in their governance and development when added and I am yet to be fully convinced they are what young people really want. The process was also unclear, with decisions seemingly made by IOC top brass and then foisted upon Tokyo 2020 in return for baseball, softball and karate.

Like most decisions in my time covering the IOC, it appeared to have been taken in a distinctly non-transparent way through horse-trading and backroom dealing.

Here I felt the balance and clarity was much better.

The IOC have consistently outlined that gender equality and innovation were their key aims and, broadly speaking, the proposals reflected this.

There was a political influence in some areas. In cycling, for instance, the madison events were probably added partly in return for the sport accepting a Tokyo 2020 proposal to move the velodrome to Izu, nearly 150 kilometres outside the Japanese capital city.

Men's madison will return to the Olympic programme after a 12-year gap while a women's event will appear for the first time ©Getty Images
Men's madison will return to the Olympic programme after a 12-year gap while a women's event will appear for the first time ©Getty Images

But it was not too obvious elsewhere.

Take the IOC Executive Board. Thomas Bach is, as is mentioned from time to time, a former Olympic champion team fencer, while vice-president Uğur Erdener is also the head of World Archery. But other members represent sports which, to use the latest IOC terminology, failed to “win, win, win” from the process.

John Coates and Anita DeFrantz are both former rowers while CK Wu is President of the International Boxing Association and also a “special advisor” for the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). Juan Antonio Samaranch is the first vice-president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union while Sergey Bubka occupies the same position in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Ser Miang Ng is also a former sailor. Modern pentathlon, athletics and sailing are the only three to have so far publicly expressed disappointment in their respective failures to add new events and maintain quotas.

Modern pentathlon had unsuccessfully applied for a mixed team relay while taekwondo had also proposed a multi-gender team event.

If it came down purely to politics, then I don’t think the Marius Vizer-run International Judo Federation would have been successful given his history with Bach.

As usual, the Executive Board did little more than sign off decision made elsewhere. But the IOC Sports Department under Kit McConnell seemed to be playing the most important role rather than those higher up the food chain.

McConnell is, quite simply, one of the hardest individuals to get information out of that I have come across in sport. Judging by the perfect poker face he repeatedly pulled when we put our predictions to him the night before, he would be the man to turn to if card games are ever considered for the programme.

Kit McConnell has the best poker face in the IOC, but has done a good job with the new sport proposals ©Getty Images
Kit McConnell has the best poker face in the IOC, but has done a good job with the new sport proposals ©Getty Images

But he has clearly done an excellent job in building relationships and working with each IF, and most seem to have accepted the verdicts partly because of the open nature of these discussions. Even some of those annoyed with the results privately blame Bach rather than McConnell. He also managed to explain them in a straightforward manner in the press conference and, for the record, without any bird-related metaphors.

It is right that some proposals were rejected and, overall, I think most were judged on merit.

Basketball, archery, judo and triathlon all ran excellent campaigns and worked hard to make their applications as detailed and well-promoted as possible. Judo will go down very well at Tokyo 2020 while having an extra day of triathlon will also add atmosphere and commercial benefit.

Taekwondo, in comparison, did not campaign hard nor appear to put much thought into their proposal. When I spoke to WTF President Chungwon Choue in April, he even proposed a mixed nationality event, which was never going to be accepted. This was a shame as, after a successful Rio 2016, a good proposal may have been viewed favourably.

Gymnastics’ hazy and unconfirmed attempt to include parkour was also rightly unsuccessful. Like a British Conservative Party manifesto, they went about it the wrong way. Rather than gradually feeding in the idea, they parachuted it in out of nowhere and consequently faced a triple somersaults-worth of opposition from figures within the sport and wider parkour community.

Boxing cannot be too surprised to miss out after an Olympic tournament littered with judging rows and other controversies. Bach also made clear that weightlifting had been punished partly for the “massive” doping problems in the sport as shown by IOC retests. Was this the same with the IAAF? I don’t know, but clearly if you are going to make cuts, then athletics is a sport with lots of room to do so.

There has also been the odd suggestion that weightlifting and maybe athletics were punished as revenge for banning Russia from Rio 2016. This may have played a role, but there is no evidence for it and other explanations given make sense.

The International Swimming Federation can count themselves as rather lucky. 

US star Katie Ledecky should be able to swim in her favoured 1500m freestyle event at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
US star Katie Ledecky should be able to swim in her favoured 1500m freestyle event at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

Their more outlandish proposals for high diving, mixed synchronised swimming and 50m swimming events were unsuccessful. I was not quite sure of the need to add the men’s 800m and women’s 1,500m freestyle, but hear it may have been following a request from broadcasters. There are now 49 aquatics events in comparison with 48 in athletics, so they are now the biggest sport on the programme.

There are still many factors to iron out. In total, there will be 285 less athletes competing than the 11,237 who participated in the Brazilian city. Yet this remains some distance short of the targeted limit of 10,500 and, for some reason, does not include 18 new events and 474 new athletes approved for the five additional sports last year.

Having 48.8 per cent female participation should be applauded given the number was just 26 per cent in 1988. They now have to ensure the events are up to scratch as some, the women’s madison for example, are still in their relative infancy. The process to reduce quotas in a sport such as athletics will also be delicate as they must find a balance between harming quality and preventing countries with few other opportunities from competing through universality positions.

Overall, though, the IOC have done a good job and deserve praise for what appears to be a well-conceived shake-up.

If only some of their other decisions were equally as clear.