Squash

Squash’s chances of 2020, 2024 Olympic inclusion

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The International Olympic Committee will make the second of three major votes at its session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Sunday.

Nearly 100 IOC members will choose one of three sports — baseball/softball, squash and wrestling — for inclusion in the 2020 and 2024 Olympics from 11-11:45 a.m. Eastern time. For more on what happens Sunday, click here.

OlympicTalk will look at each sport’s pitch. Here is a rundown of squash:

In 2011, squash had to feel fairly confident about getting into the Olympics for 2020 and 2024, even though the vote was two years away.

That’s when the IOC short listed eight sports for possible inclusion — baseball, karate, roller sports, sports climbing, softball, squash, wakeboarding and wushu. Of those, only baseball, karate, roller sports and softball joined squash in 2009 when it came up short for 2016 inclusion, when golf and rugby made it.

In 2005, baseball and softball had been cut from the Olympics beginning with the 2012 Games. Also in 2005, karate and squash actually beat golf and rugby, as well as roller sports, in voting for 2012 inclusion, though none made it. Squash, so close and yet to be given a chance in the Olympics, was gaining momentum.

Squash is a racket sport pitting two competitors hitting a ball against a wall. Points are won if a ball bounces twice on the floor before one competitor gets to it. Points are lost for hitting the ball too low on the wall.

The last year saw a combination blow dent its hopes. In 2012, baseball and softball merged into one bid, strengthening the cause of both sports. In February, wrestling was cut from the list of Olympic core sports in a shocking decision, so the Olympic stalwart dropped into the group of squash and others looking for 2020 and 2024 inclusion.

In May, the IOC named three finalists. Squash made it again, as expected two years ago. So did baseball/softball and wrestling, two bids that, one year ago, wouldn’t have been candidates for Sunday’s vote. Squash could have been the popular pick heading into Buenos Aires. Not anymore.

The Associated Press described its chances as, “once the favorite, now maybe a stroke too far.” The New York Times called it “a long shot.”

“We’re happy that we’re in the final three,” said Kevin Klipstein, CEO of U.S. Squash since 2004, in a phone interview. “It was definitely actually a bit of a tough break, for wrestling to be selected as a sport to be eliminated (in February) because a lot of squash coverage was being viewed very favorably up until that point.”

Key information for IOC session in Buenos Aires

Klipstein said the feedback squash received after failed bids for 2012 and 2016 inclusion were to better its broadcast product. It added more streaming of the sport’s professional tours, shooting in HD with multiple camera angles. In the U.S., ESPN3 and Tennis Channel continue to give it more attention, but how far it has come is still questionable.

“We put together as good a product as we can,” Klipstein said. “We’ve done what we can do. See where it shakes out on Sunday.”

Klipstein said squash is on a similar trajectory to what tennis was on 30 or 40 years ago. Tennis greats such as Andre AgassiKim ClijstersRoger Federer and Andy Murray have backed the bid.

“I could be wrong, but I think why it’s not on TV as much is because it almost seems like the same point is getting played,” Murray said at the U.S. Open this week. “It’s maybe not the best spectator sport, but it’s a very difficult sport to play. You have to be extremely fit, have very good hand/eye coordination, good feel and good touch.”

Squash is cost-effective. It can be played on a glass court built pretty much anywhere.

“I could do it on the bridge over the Bosphorus (Turkey), in a bullfighting ring (Spain) or in the Imperial Palace gardens (Japan),” World Squash Federation president N. Ramachandran of India said, according to The Associated Press. “You tell me where to put it, and I will do it. You can put them up in a matter of three days.”

Squash hopes a man named Mike Lee can work more magic. Lee, described by different outlets as a lobbyist, strategist and consultant, worked for London 2012, Rio 2016, rugby’s successful bid and the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

Another pro for squash is that it’s global. All five continents have produced world champions.

“With athletes 185 countries playing squash, I can count on going to tournaments and being surrounded by players from every part of the globe,” Amanda Sobhy, 20, the top-ranked U.S. squash player, told USA Today. “And yet, deep down inside, every single one of us would gladly trade all of our titles for the chance to compete in the Olympics.”

What it also has going is that it’s the only one of the candidates that has yet to be given a shot in the Olympic program. Winning the vote would increase its growing legitimacy.

“We’ve always viewed the Olympics as something we really want to achieve, for the athletes, that they get a chance to compete on the world’s biggest and brightest stage,” Klipstein said, “and it’s clear that we fit well into the Olympics overall in terms of the values that we have — the sportsmanship, the fact that it’s clean.”

Remember when wrestling gained attention for holding a meet inside New York’s Grand Central Terminal in May? Squash, in addition to an event outside the Egyptian pyramids, has been holding competitions at Grand Central for years.

“I guess imitation is flattery,” Klipstein said. “(Wrestling) got some nice publicity for it. I guess it’s a validation of the fact that we’re doing things that make sense.”

If squash doesn’t prevail Sunday, it’s not going to give up.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” Klipstein said. “Dust ourselves off, come back with a stronger bid.”

Istanbul’s chances of hosting 2020 Olympics

Karen Chen breaks U.S. Champs scoring record; Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold trail

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KANSAS CITY — A skater broke the U.S. Championships women’s short program scoring record Thursday night, but it wasn’t Ashley Wagner or Gracie Gold.

Karen Chen, a 17-year-old former junior star who struggled the last two years, tallied 72.82 points at the Sprint Center to lead going into Saturday’s free skate (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Mirai Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian, is second, .87 of a point behind.

That leaves Wagner and Gold, who combined to win the last five U.S. titles, in third and fifth, respectively.

This is concerning for Wagner (1.88 behind Chen) and Gold (7.97 behind) given U.S. Figure Skating can send three women to worlds in two months. That selection will be made this weekend, primarily — but not totally — based off U.S. Championships results.

Tessa Hong is in fourth place, but at 14 years old is too young for senior worlds.

Full results are here.

Though Wagner and Gold are usually higher placed, the biggest surprise was Chen.

“My body’s still trembling right now,” she said, two hours after her performance.

Chen skated a clean program Thursday, rare for her in the last couple of seasons. Chen burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old two years ago, finishing third at nationals behind Wagner and Gold.

She was too young to be selected for the 2015 Worlds team. Little has been heard from Chen since.

She dropped to eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships and came into Kansas City as the seventh-ranked U.S. woman this season. Struggling to find comfortable boots — a common skater problem — has plagued her. She went through 14 pairs in a four-month stretch.

“Everyone has doubts, and I certainly do as well,” said Chen, who choreographed her short program. “But I just kept pushing and telling myself that I’m gaining more experience, I’m learning about everything in the process and I’m just going to keep getting better.”

Wagner bounced back from her last outing — her worst Grand Prix finish in 25 career starts — with a decent program. She needed to save a double Axel near the end of her short. The 2016 World silver medalist was the pre-event favorite.

“People do not understand how difficult of a position I am in,” said Wagner, a 25-year-old bidding to become the oldest U.S. women’s champion in 90 years. “It might seem like I’m on top of the world, or second from being top of the world, but this is a very tough position to be in. It’s mentally been weighing on my shoulders all season. To be able to come out and show people I am a fighter, I’m really proud of that.”

Gold needed to show a fighting spirit given her well-publicized disaster of a fall season. And she did. Her only miss in the short program was doubling a planned triple flip.

“I can feel a huge improvement as a skater. I think everyone can see it,” Gold said. “I have made comebacks before. This doesn’t feel like a major comeback in some ways, because I felt pretty solid. … A long program is worth a lot of points, and I can certainly deliver some good long programs. I kind of feel like I’m due for a good one.”

If Gold doesn’t improve in the free skate, she could be left off the worlds team for the first time in her senior career. However, Gold believes her strong credentials in recent seasons merit consideration.

“We’ve seen different controversies where people aren’t on the [nationals] podium, and they’re still selected for events,” Gold said. “Michelle Kwan has not gone to nationals and been selected for an Olympic team [in 2006]. I believe that I deserve to be on the world team, but I’m not on the selection committee. Of course, every athlete feels like they should be on the world team.”

Earlier Thursday, the pairs short program produced surprise leaders.

The U.S. Championships continue Friday with the short dance and men’s short program. A full broadcast schedule is here.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating boss wants Russia out of PyeongChang

Women’s Short Program
1. Karen Chen — 72.82
2. Mirai Nagasu — 71.95
3. Ashley Wagner — 70.94
4. Tessa Hong — 65.02
5. Gracie Gold — 64.85

 

Gwen Jorgensen pregnant, to sit out 2017 triathlon season

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 20: USA's Gwen Jorgensen followed by Switzerland's Nicola Spirig Hug (L) compete in the running portion of the women's triathlon at Fort Copacabana during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 20, 2016.(Photo by Jeff Pachoud-Pool/Getty Images)
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Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen is pregnant and will not compete this year.

“Just kind of take this year a little bit easier,” Jorgensen said in a video posted on Facebook on Thursday.

The baby is due Aug. 3, according to Jorgensen’s social media.

Jorgensen, 30, became the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion in Rio after going in as the heavy favorite. She has said for months that she planned to take time off to have a baby before returning to defend her Olympic title at Tokyo 2020.

Swiss Nicola Spirig, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 2016 silver medalist, is reportedly expecting a child in May.

In Jorgensen and Spirig’s absences, the top triathletes going into the season are defending world champion Flora Duffy of Bermuda, U.S. Olympians Katie Zaferes and Sarah True and Britons Vicky Holland and Helen Jenkins.

Jorgensen’s last competition was the New York City Marathon on Nov. 6, when she finished 14th in her first running race longer than 10 miles.

The World Triathlon Series kicks off in Abu Dhabi the first weekend of March.

MORE: Triathlon federation boss wants Olympic races shortened