Will’s World Handicapping the Field

Pavilion Seven at the Lenexpo Exhibition Complex in St. Petersburg, Russia, sits just a few yards east of the Gulf of Finland. On a sunny day, as it was on the last Wednesday in May, the building’s glass and whitemetal walls pick up the light off the water and the Pavilion looks as if lit by a spotlight.

The International Olympic Committee never shies from attention, though it also likes its decision-making to be private, and even mysterious. So, after lunch and eight half-hour pitches by officials and athletes from the sports looking for inclusion in the 2020 Games (baseball/softball, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wake boarding, wrestling, and wushu), the IOC’s executive board dismissed everyone in Conference Hall 7-2 and started to decide which three of the sports would be finalists for consideration.

The votes were conducted by secret ballot and lasted several rounds, but on the first round, wrestling received eight of the 14 votes and was the first finalist voted in. After a few more rounds of votes, roller sports and wake boarding were eliminated and baseball/softball beat karate 9-5 in a head-to-vote to become the second sport to win a finalist spot.

Squash finally got through in the final round, when it got eight votes to defeat wushu with four and sport climbing with two.

Cue celebration within the squash community.

Squash has good reason to celebrate; this bid process has been conducted with expertise by the PSA and the WSF. Squash has ticked off every box that the IOC has implied that it needed, including developing top-level television broadcasts with strong commentating, perfecting the use and setup of the all-glass court, and adding lighting, music and video replay in pro events.

In fact, if one were to look only at the stated criteria for the Games (gender equality, number of countries, athlete representation, part of regional Games, development programs, and television broadcasting), squash would have to be considered the most deserving of the three finalists. Inclusion in the Games, however, is not only about merit.

Nor is it about fairness. It is silly, for example, that squash, a potential new sport for the Games, is facing off against two sports who are applying for reinstatement. Wouldn’t it make much more sense to have two different pools—those seeking to return to the Games and those hoping to be in for the first time? After publicly stating that its goal was to bring in a new sport in 2020, the IOC has let two old sports get to the finals. At face value, squash would be the obvious winner of the three finalists, but things with the IOC are rarely as they seem.

In our community, the common perception is that the decision is really between squash and wrestling, but baseball/ softball should not be underestimated.

First, baseball has a long history with the Games, starting as a demonstration sport at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Almost unbelievably, it was a demonstration sport five more times (1936 in Berlin, 1956 in Melbourne, 1964 in Tokyo, 1984 in Los Angeles, and 1988 in Seoul) before being officially declared an Olympic sport for the 1992 games in Spain.

Second, baseball has—by far—the most money of the three final sports. Money often equals power, and in this case, the power comes primarily from television. While the IOC didn’t think that baseball carried enough interest in Europe when it decided in 2005 that baseball would not be included in the 2012 Olympics, the World Baseball Classic (an international success story, even if a minor blip in the US) has shown that baseball does, in fact, bring significant worldwide ratings—far more than either wrestling or squash would be able to match.

Finally, the addition of softball to the bid combination addresses almost all of either sport’s weaknesses. Together, they are very strong competitors for the final spot.

Wrestling’s history in the Olympics, of course, is even longer than baseball’s. One of the original ancient sports and a part of every modern Olympics except 1900, wrestling had 71 nations represented in the 2012 London Games, with 29 taking home medals. Much of the world was stunned when it was recommended for removal from the Games by the IOC in February.

There is a theory that the IOC was upset that wrestling considered itself beyond consideration for removal and wanted to teach it (and all potentially complacent sports) a lesson. There was, however, serious backlash worldwide after wrestling was recommended for removal. With the support of its international community and fast, dramatic action by wrestling’s international body (changing its president and adopting new rules), wrestling is widely considered to be back in the driver’s seat for the coveted spot.

The question in many minds is whether the IOC can stomach looking like it made a “mistake” in February or whether they can spin it to look as if it were simply trying to get a critical sport to look at itself, well, critically. So, how does one handicap this race?

Baseball/softball is the clear favorite if the goal is television ratings and money (the odds: 3-1). Wrestling is the clear favorite if the goal is to maintain a connection to the ancient games and to demonstrate the importance of listening to the IOC (the odds: 3-2). And squash is the clear favorite if it really is a new sport’s turn (the odds: 2-1). These odds suggest that wrestling will get the nod.

But consider the following: when the IOC decided to hold the meeting where these three finalists would be named in Russia, it looked not at Moscow, which hosted the 1980 summer Games, but instead to St. Petersburg, a city with centuries of history, but also one widely considered the most modern of Russian cities.

And when the IOC picked the multibuilding exhibition center, Lenexpo, to host the meeting, they had nine pavilions from which to choose. They chose Pavilion Seven. It’s the newest building in the complex.