Ali Iveson

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics are not even a week old, yet the fight for sports to feature at future Games is hotting up. This week one which lays claim to being the biggest outside of the Olympic Movement, cricket, formally joined the race for a Los Angeles 2028 place.

It is far from alone. 

Thirty-three sports were contested at Tokyo 2020, and 32 are set to feature at Paris 2024. Baseball-softball and karate are the two which appeared in Japan but will be absent from France - and both are lobbying hard to return to the programme in seven years’ time.

World Karate Federation President Antonio Espinós claimed that "the Olympic Games needs karate" after the sport made its debut in the Japanese capital, while World Baseball Softball Confederation counterpart Riccardo Fraccari insisted the organisation is "confident that baseball and softball will be returning to the Summer Olympic Games soon". A strategy for its LA28 bid was recently adopted.

You can add lacrosse, flag football and sambo to the list of sports also hopeful of featuring at the 2028 Olympics - and there are likely more. How many places there are for sports at the Games is unclear - more on that shortly - but one thing that is clear is that more want to be involved than will be.

With the exception of weightlifting, which has been threatened with expulsion from the Olympics over a myriad of governance and anti-doping scandal - the 28 core sports appear safe.

Skateboarding and surfing both appear certainties to feature, with California associated with both, and indeed Japanese medallists in both skateboarding and surfing call Los Angeles home, such is the city’s relationship with the sports. Sport climbing’s Olympic debut has drawn widespread praise, so also figures to be in the mix, while breaking is set for an Olympic debut at Paris 2024 and so is surely in contention too.

All this comes at a time when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a stated aim of limiting the number of athletes at the Summer Games to approximately 10,500. Adding team sports makes that challenging.

In cricketing parlance, it looks like the sport has a steep chase ahead. And it may well be decided in February - in fewer days than there are balls in a Twenty20 match - as the IOC intends to decide the initial sport programme for LA28 at its Session held to coincide with the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

In reality, a December meeting between the IOC Executive Board and Olympic Programme Commission seems D-Day for the Olympic dreams of cricket, baseball-softball, lacrosse and all the other 2028 hopefuls.

That cricket has got to this stage marks a U-turn in the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) approach to growth - although the announcement itself was little surprise, given the Board of Control for Cricket in India and England and Wales Cricket Board - two of the "Big Three" national governing bodies, along with Cricket Australia - had signalled their support for trying to join the Olympics. 

And targeting LA28 shows an ambition to grow the game, or at least tap into new markets. ICC chair Greg Barclay referenced a statistic that there are 30 million cricket fans in the United States while expressing how the ICC "see the Olympics as a part of cricket’s long-term future", and the US would appear to be the biggest short-term beneficiary should cricket be approved for LA28. 

Cricket can boast competitive international teams from all five continental regions ©Getty Images
Cricket can boast competitive international teams from all five continental regions ©Getty Images

USA Cricket chair Paraag Marathe is included on the ICC’s five-person Olympic Working Group, and the Americans could potentially play in any Olympic cricket tournament as host - a major fillip for a country whose men’s and women’s national teams have never before qualified for a World Cup.

Inclusion at the 2028 Olympics would likely see facilities improved in the US - more grass wickets would certainly be a starting point - and Marathe claimed it would "help us to achieve our own vision for establishing cricket as a mainstream sport in this country". 

There may be 30 million cricket fans in the US, but there are not 30 million fans of US cricket.

Those in favour of cricket featuring at the Olympics hope it would open up new funding avenues for developing nations, as well as raise the profile of the women’s game. Despite its huge popularity in terms of the numbers who play and watch cricket, it remains a mainstream sport in relatively few countries, most of them from the Commonwealth.

It would take time, especially given any Olympic cricket tournament would almost certainly be smaller than the T20 or 50-over World Cups, offering few if any berths to developing nations, but the Games represents a unique vehicle for cricket to reach new corners of the globe and tap into Government funding.

That the ICC is trying to get in the Olympics now, for Los Angeles - not four years later when Brisbane in cricketing powerhouse Australia hosts the Games - also suggests a genuine commitment to developing the sport beyond its traditional outposts. 

So that is what the Olympics can do for cricket - how about the other way round? 

Surfing is a new Olympic sport but appears very likely to feature at Los Angeles 2028 ©Getty Images
Surfing is a new Olympic sport but appears very likely to feature at Los Angeles 2028 ©Getty Images

The sport's potential to increase Olympic audiences in the Indian subcontinent was highlighted by Barclay, who claimed cricket would be "a great addition to the Olympic Games" and pointed out that "92 per cent of our fans come from" South Asia.

India won seven medals at Tokyo 2020 - one gold - while Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka won none. That is not much of a return for a region containing roughly a quarter of the world’s population. 

Adding cricket may do little to address this in medal terms, after all there will only be two sets of medals on offer, but including the sport would surely do wonders for the profile and popularity of the Olympics in the region - especially given its avid following in India - home to more than 1.3 million people and one of the world’s biggest economies - as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan, each of which boast a larger population than Russia.

Cricket can also boast having at least one competitive men’s and women’s team from all five continental zones.

So often in sport, money talks. If it does so here, cricket will be an Olympic sport. 

Olympic cricket would look different. England, the current men's and women's 50-over world champions, would not play, with players instead competing under a British flag along with Scottish and potentially some Irish colleagues.

Twenty20 is the most likely format - although 10-over and 100-ball varieties have both been touted for the Games - but current men’s T20 world champions the West Indies would also be absent, with the Caribbean nations instead competing as standalone countries. 

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, where women’s T20 cricket is on the programme, should offer a glimpse of this, with a West Indies qualifier planned to decide which country gets to represent the region at Edgbaston.

Women's Twenty20 cricket is on the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games programme, while the sport is also set to feature at next year's Asian Games ©Getty Images
Women's Twenty20 cricket is on the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games programme, while the sport is also set to feature at next year's Asian Games ©Getty Images

Baseball and softball could offer the biggest obstacle to cricket joining the Los Angeles 2028 programme. While comparisons between the two are hackneyed, the sports do have their similarities - both in terms of athlete quotas required at the Games, general bat-and-ball themes and potentially the venues in Los Angeles they would wish to use. 

If it were a case of one or the other, baseball-softball can boast plenty of heritage and popularity in the US and particularly California. But the inability for the best men’s baseball players in the world to compete at Tokyo 2020 and other Olympics may go against it, especially if the ICC is able to guarantee a pause in the international calendar for cricket’s best and brightest to compete at the Games. 

The IOC and others love to talk about the Olympic legacy, and including cricket at LA28 certainly has the scope to leave one behind.

Cricket has been long off the Olympic programme, last appearing in Paris in 1900, but a new variety of duck could be coming to Anaheim if the ICC spin is successful. Cricket’s global governing body has finally changed its line and asked the IOC and LA28 howzat? Only in this instance, it hopes the answer will be in, not out.