Nick Butler

Being in Baku, the time difference for today’s announcement of sports shortlisted for the second stage of consideration for inclusion at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was rather convenient.

Taking place at 10:30am Japanese-time, I needed to set my alarm only slightly earlier than normal and there was even time for a morning-coffee before sitting down to get to grips with which of the 26 sports - ranging from American football and powerboating to sumo wrestling and chess - had been selected.

The chosen eight were relatively unsurprising, consisting of front-runners baseball and softball along with karate and squash and three other survivors from the initial inclusion-contest in 2013: roller skating, sport climbing and wushu. Two new additions were surfing and bowling, both of which were rewarded for strong promotional campaigns.

The other 18 contenders will have to wait for at least another Olympics cycle, no major surprise considering most of these were such long shots who probably only applied in the first place to get a little bit of publicity.

Considering the similarities with 2013, many people have reacted to today’s announcement with a sense of déjà vu, expressing hope the contest does not get derailed in the way the last one did by the controversial decision to axe wrestling after Rio 2016 only for it to be reprieved at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Buenos Aires later that year. 

The funny things is that this race has, in baseball and softball, a favourite almost as strong as wrestling was. Almost from the moment the phrase “new sport” was first uttered, it has been taken for granted they will be there in six years-time in the Japanese capital.

Baseball was showcased impressively in the Far East at last autumn's Asian Games in Incheon, where it was considered one of the most popular sports on the programme ©ITG
Baseball was showcased impressively in the Far East at last autumn's Asian Games in Incheon, where it was considered one of the most popular sports on the programme ©ITG

So many times has IOC President Thomas Bach been asked about this, that when a Japanese journalist once asked him a different question, he looked momentarily startled,  quipping: “I was expecting you to ask about baseball.”

As their removal from the Olympic programme after Beijing 2008 suggests, the two are not perfect, still lacking in popularity in many parts of the world, despite the vast development work taking place. But baseball's huge status in Japan is a huge advantage, enabling its sister softball to piggyback its way back onto the Olympic programme. The two sports also offer something different to most of the other sports that will be in Tokyo 2020. 

I’ve learnt how it is rash to make bold predictions in this line of work lest they come back to haunt you, but it would be a massive, massive shock if they were not returned to the Olympic progamme, surely requiring something to go badly wrong between now and September.

The difference this time around if that there is not necessarily just one place available, and other sports are confident they could be added in addition to, rather than instead, of baseball and softball.

In releases reacting to the shortlisting today, all sorts of well-trodden phrases have been pandered out. “Our sport is innovative,” said one. “Ours is sustainable,” claimed another, while others sell themselves as “affordable”, “unique” and “popular all around the world”.

It is clear everyone has different views about which will make the best additions, and judgments will be affected by which part of the world people are from, as well as personal preference and familiarity. In Britain the BBC, for example, led its report this morning not by focusing who has made it through, but that “Snooker misses out on 2020 Tokyo place”.

A key priority is finding something that is different from what is already on the programme. So, despite their spectacular nature,  in my personal view there is little need for another combat sport to sit alongside boxing, fencing, judo, taekwondo and wrestling.

To the untrained eye there is little to distinguish the likes of karate, wushu and taekwondo and despite their claims to the contrary I don’t see either of these sports as “fresh” or “innovative”, particularly as broadly the same handful of nations seem to dominate each one. Having to add several weight categories would also pose an added challenge.

As another racket sport, the same argument could probably be made of squash, although it is simple-to-understand and more obviously different from the likes of tennis, table tennis and badminton. It also boasts the asset of having top players from non-traditional sporting powerhouse, such as male and female world number ones Mohamed El Shorbagy of Egypt and Nicol David from Malaysia.

A glass squash court on Karon Beach in Phuket used during last November's Asian Beach Games ©ASB Squash
A glass squash court on Karon Beach in Phuket used during last November's Asian Beach Games ©ASB Squash

Bowling is an interesting choice, and probably the biggest surprise on the list. It’s certainly an accessible sport, and one requiring great skill which is popular in Asia and in Japan. Call me old fashioned, but I somehow don’t feel it quite deserves a place ahead of many of the others, however. It is considered more of a pastime or hobby than a sport in much of the world, and is a precision-event broadly similar to others already at the Games like archery, shooting and curling.

Another which bears similarities with a winter discipline is roller skating, with speed events almost certainly among their proposals. Because the Federations and Tokyo 2020 have each been ordered to be quiet about the contents of their proposals, we don’t exactly which events are envisaged, although we have been told that skateboarding is the other suggested discipline. If true, this would be fascinating, revoking memories of the amalgamation of snowboarding within the International Ski Federation in the 1990s.

The IOC - and Bach in particular - is certainly keen on skateboarding, helping to boost its image with young people and to “get couch potatoes off the couch”. Applying as roller skating is politically difficult, however, and would face a backlog of opposition from within the skateboarding community, but would solve the issue of no skateboarding federation being IOC-recognised and therefore eligible to apply.

My biggest concern is how the sport is so reliant on judges, and I would personally prefer to see a “faster, higher, stronger” discipline than a judged-one. Yet there is no denying its spectacular nature and, as far as the IOC and is concerned, the potential advantages of its addition may outweigh the questions it would pose. And as I see it, despite Tokyo organisers being ostensibly in full control of the process before it is rubber-stamped at next August’s Session in Rio, the IOC are still wielding much influence in the process...

The two others shortlisted are similarly youth-orientated sports. By employing the likes of Vero Communications and well-trodden strategist Bob Fasulo, the International Surfing Association has flexed its muscles, but, then again, a sport should not be punished for running a good campaign.

For me, surfing could be a brilliant addition, but only in a particular venue. If Los Angeles had been put forward as the United States candidate for 2024 - definitely? But at Tokyo 2020? Well, as my editor said earlier, the Beach Boys didn’t sing about surfing anywhere in the Japanese capital…

That leaves climbing: the dark horse and, for me, potentially the best left-field choice. Once again, it has problems, with rival governing bodies battling for control over different aspects of the sport. But it is hugely physical, good to watch, easy to understand, based on time rather than judges and - crucially - different to anything already on the programme.

I was lucky enough to have a go at it at the Sports Lab in Nanjing during last year's Summer Youth Olympic Games and I can testify it is fun but also immensely tough, a reminder for me of my almost complete lack of upper body strength.

IOC President Thomas Bach perfecting his wushu at the Youth Olympics Sport Lab, with the Climbing Wall in the background ©ITG
IOC President Thomas Bach perfecting his wushu at the Youth Olympics Sport Lab, with the Climbing Wall in the background ©ITG

So that would be my shout if it was up to me. Baseball and softball because the Games are in Tokyo and climbing as my second pick, although squash, surfing and others are fully deserving of a place.

It is not my choice however and, as is often the way with these things, a broad manner of other aspects must be considered. Will wushu - formerly known as kung fu - be handicapped by the tension between China and Japan, for example? Will karate’s showcasing here at the European Games in front of Bach and Kuwaiti powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah be an advantage?

We shall see, and the months ahead promise to be fascinating as a campaigning process rumbles on behind closed doors in a battle to be showcased at the greatest sporting event of them all.