Legacy and all that

It’s decision time, as I write, for the IOC. There’s a bunch of sports that want in the Olympics. There’s a bunch more don’t want to be kicked out. And, following a decision-making process that’s as transparent as a rail franchise award, the IOC are set to deliver their verdict.

In the running are such favourites as baseball, in-line skating, wakeboarding, karate and squash. Hoping to muscle its way back in is wrestling, still amazed that anyone would have the gall (and strength) to throw it out in the first place.

By the time I get round to publishing this I’ll already have had to update it, because the shortlist will have been drawn up, and if we don’t know who the winners are yet, we’ll be able to name a few losers.*

But what should the criteria be? There’s the obvious, but why anyone would think it’s all about how much those honest IOC officials get paid into their “charitable foundations” is beyond me (innocent face). In a radio phone-in a couple of days ago, representatives from the various contenders cited popularity – so many millions of participants in so many countries. And (with the exception of baseball), all were able to point to another argument that such Olympic stalwarts as football and tennis can’t assert in their favour: in each case, Olympic participation (let alone a medal) would be the pinnacle of achievement in the sport. There’s no point in talking about tradition – what with the success of beach volleyball and even the possibility of eliminating wrestling, tradition went out of the window a long time ago.

The IOC need sports with spectator appeal. I get that, unfortunate as it might be; the IOC needs to sell rights and it needs to have something worth selling. The “pinnacle of the sport” is a nice argument, too, and it would be lovely if it were considered at all by the people who’ll be making the decisions, but these are the same people putting golf on the menu for 2016, so you can forget about that.

Sarah tells me that one of the great things about the Olympics is getting to watch things you wouldn’t otherwise see, and that this is a case in favour of events like sailing and equestrianism. I’m not so sure. I mean, yes, it’s fun watching those horses prance round the arena for a few minutes once every four years, but not that much fun. If you did want to watch it, there’s always the Badminton horse trials or whatever they’re called. As for the sailing, there are regattas on all the time. If you really want to see them, there’s probably a live stream somewhere, but don’t expect them to be on in your local sports bar, because you know what? Everyone else finds it boring.

And yes, it’s sad, and I’m sorry, Ben Ainslie, and doubly so because these are sports that Britain tends to do quite well at, in a completely unrepresentative way, but that’s the fact of it: the reason we don’t get to watch these sports outside the Olympics is that we don’t choose to watch them outside the Olympics. They’ve had their chance. And they’ve blown it.

And even if this were a valid argument, you could make it equally well in favour of karate or squash or pretty much any of the new contenders (again, except baseball): this isn’t something you’d normally watch. It’s the fact that it’s in the Olympics that makes it worth watching in the first place, that confers the special aura and elevates the also-ran to the talked-about. It’s a precious gift, and we should think carefully about who gets it.

And for me, it comes down to the participants. I made the point a while back, in a post about tennis, that one of that sport’s great virtues is that almost anyone can play it. You don’t need much to have a go.

Now, I don’t know much about wakeboarding. OK, I don’t know anything about wakeboarding. But karate? Kung fu? Even skating, to an extent? These are sports almost anyone can try, rich or poor. You don’t need a million pound fibreglass boat or a horse so well-bred it could pour the tea at a Royal Garden Party. When a kid watches the Olympics and becomes inspired to take up a sport, isn’t it better that it’s a sport the kid might actually be able to take up? You’ll find a local karate club. You’ll get some cheap skates off eBay and give them a whirl. But if it’s the horses and the boats that have got you off the sofa, chances are you’ll be back on it a few minutes later tearing a pizza to pieces and admiring people doing something you’ll never have the chance to try.

So for me it comes down to that most poisonous of words, “legacy”. The Olympics is about lots of things, it’s about entertaining spectators and making money and national pride and national hubris, but it should also be about encouraging the sportsmen and women of the future, and you’re going to inspire a lot more of them if what they’re watching is something they can actually do. I don’t have a problem with minority sports: get them into the Olympics and they might not be so “minority” in the future. What I resent is the wasted opportunity given to sports that are elitist by their very nature (unlike something like rowing, which is only elitist by tradition), and which never can become much more widespread than they already are.

Of course, no one’s talking about kicking out the yachtsmen or the horse-prancers, so none of this really matters. But wouldn’t it be great if the IOC could take a fresh look at what people really want to see every four years? My guess is they might be a little surprised.

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If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.

*and here’s the update: wrestling will battle baseball/softball and squash for the spot.

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