Squash Pinned by Wrestling

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Arriving in Buenos Aires, Argentina, four days in advance of the IOC vote, the WSF delegation included (L-R) Andrew Shelley (WSF CEO), Sarah Fitz-Gerald, Diego Elias, N Ramachandran (WSF President), Andreina Benedith and Ramy Ashour.

By Rod Gilmour

It was just before Sunday lunch at the Hilton in Buenos Aires, when Jacques Rogge, the outgoing International Olympic committee president, stared down at the white sheet of paper in front of him. Slowly, he began to read out the result on which sport would win Olympic 2020 and 2024 status.

There was no envelope, as we had seen when Rogge pulled out the card announcing Tokyo as the host city for the 2020 Olympics. Without looking up, this time the Belgian told us that there was a majority win, that wrestling, with 49 votes, had been elected for the 2020 Games.

Just as that line began to sink in, a huge cheer erupted from the row immediately behind squash’s eight-strong bid team. The seating arrangements at the Hilton were pertinent for the three sports: ever since wrestling had been transported back onto the shortlist, squash had always been looking over its shoulder at the ancient sport’s weight within the IOC.

The squash contingent, as well as the joint bid from baseball and softball in front of them, sat motionless. There was the odd gentle clap, but most looked solemnly to the ground. After a two-year, expensive campaign, it was over. The two losing sports couldn’t get out of the room quickly enough.

A “heartbroken” N Ramachandran, the World Squash Federation president, was the only official to make a statement following the vote.

“As the only new Olympic sport on the shortlist,” he said, “we believed squash offered something for the future, and I hope that our inclusion may still be possible.

“The feedback we have received from many IOC members for our campaign and our presentation has been very positive, and I am encouraged by the vote we received. We have much to offer the Olympic movement and I am hopeful that this is not the end of our Olympic journey.”

He’s right. There could still be hope for squash. On each day of these IOC sessions, there were rumors that the new president— German Thomas Bach replaced Jacques Rogge—could change the Olympic charter.

Dick Pound, Canada’s IOC member, had started the process on the morning of the vote. The 71-year-old, a squash player for 35 years before succumbing to “dodgy knees”, had questioned the validity of the process. He had wanted wrestling reinstated, but the vote to be put off for five months, handing the two ‘new’ sports on the shortlist a fair shot at 2020 inclusion following a two-year campaign. His idea was cast aside by Rogge, who wanted “to act now.”

A day later, Pound told Squash Magazine that the whole process had been “absurd” and expected Bach to implement change. “Let the new president grapple with this and there will be a solution,” he said.

Despite Pound’s idea being dismissed, a ray of hope began to shine for squash’s plight.

Following baseball and softball’s presentation, squash’s twenty minutes in front of the IOC members impressed many. “The guys gelled perfectly,” Andrew Shelley, the World Squash Federation chief executive, said the morning after. “They nailed the presentation. It’s just that we were up against a rather heavier and stronger opponent.”

Those within the sport had no doubt seen the Olympic promotional videos over the last six months, featuring Ramy Ashour and Nicol David, the respective world No.1’s. Here, the videos seemed to resonate more power on a bigger screen in front of those who mattered.

Ashour’s speech made reference to squash’s proud anti-doping record. He added that “scoring was decided on court, not by the judges.” Sarah Fitz-Gerald, the five-time women’s world champion, spoke of the “proud advances” in gender equality and prize money.

To close, Peruvian player Diego Elias and Andreina Benedith, who grew up in the Bronx, then spoke of their dreams. “Please give us this opportunity,” they had said together. “We won’t disappoint you.”

But it was squash who was left the most disappointed, finishing third with 22 votes, two behind baseball and softball.

The back-slapping from IOC delegates began moments later outside the session hall. However, Prince Imran Tunku, Malaysia’s IOC member and a former WSF president, said afterwards: “Squash must continue the soft sell. They mustn’t give up and many members felt they did the best presentation.”

Bronx teenager Benedith, who said that squash had “changed her life” after coming through the ranks at New York’s City Squash urban program, also expressed hope that her sport would one day be included in the Games.

“It is very sad, but let’s see what happens next,” Benedith said. “I really thought we had a chance.

“Just knowing that squash has grown is exciting, but I know we are very close to making it into the Olympics.

“It has been incredibly exciting. I am from a small little program in New York and to be part of something so much bigger has been very special.”

Whether squash can make that bigger step towards the Olympics is now up to Bach.