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.”

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Mary Cain ‘back to basics’ after ‘disappointing year’

Mary Cain
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Mary Cain, who in 2013 became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to make a World Championships team and turned pro at age 17 later that fall, is spending her run-up to next year and the 2016 Olympics home in New York rather than returning to Oregon where she went to college and trained last year.

In June, Cain finished eighth in the 1500m at the U.S. Championships, missing the top-four placement necessary to make the World Championships team.

“After a disappointing year, I knew that I needed a change,” Cain said in a blog post Tuesday. “For me, that meant returning home to New York (and its bagels) or where it all started. With 2016 being such an important year, it’s a blessing to be able to, as my mom says, ‘Go back to basics.'”

Cain, who was a freshman at the University of Portland last year, is still coached by three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar with the aid of New Zealand 2004 Olympic 10,000m runner John Henwood, according to the blog.

“We’re trying to get [running] back to fun with her,” Henwood said, according to Runner’s World.

Cain moved from Bronxville, N.Y., to Portland after graduating high school last year, completing a decorated prep career filled with records and state and national titles. She trained with Salazar’s group, which includes Olympic 10,000m gold and silver medalists Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.

Cain won the World Junior Championships 3000m in 2014 and became the youngest woman to make a senior World Championships 1500m final in 2013, when she finished 10th.

“I always said the key to running well was keeping the sport fun,” Cain said in the blog post. “With the help of this great NY running community, I am happy to say that I have found that love again! I’m looking forward to a rewarding Indoor and Outdoor season.

“Thanks to everyone who has supported me through the ups and downs! I hope to make 2016 a year to remember!”

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Brazil’s best tennis player: ‘tough to dream’ of Rio Olympic medal

Thomaz Bellucci
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Thomaz Bellucci admits playing at a home Olympics brings at least some pressure.

“To well represent Brazil,” the Sao Paulo native clarified at the U.S. Open in New York last month. “It’s tough to dream about having a medal.”

The 27-year-old Bellucci is the only Brazilian tennis player, man or woman, ranked in the world top 50. He sits at No. 31, having this season reached his first ATP final since 2012 and winning it at the Geneva Open in Switzerland in May.

Brazil’s Olympic Committee set a target of 27 to 30 medals in Rio, after earning 17 at London 2012. The added glory likely won’t come from tennis, a sport in which a Brazilian has never stood on an Olympic podium.

“For the Olympics, I don’t feel too many pressure,” Bellucci said, “because even if I play in Brazil, I know there are many players more favored than me because [Roger] Federer‘s going to play, [Novak] Djokovic, all these guys have so much more pressure than me because they have more chance to have a medal.”

Olympic tennis gained greater significance on the busy tour calendars among top players with recent Games.

On the men’s side, every medalist from 2008 and 2012 had already reached at least one Grand Slam final in his career. That group of six included Federer (2012 silver), Djokovic (2008 bronze), Rafael Nadal (2008 gold) and Andy Murray (2012 gold).

But if Bellucci and the Brazilians look back, they can find unexpected, inspiring runs. In 1996, Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni came to the Atlanta Games ranked No. 95 in the world, having never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam.

The charismatic Meligeni, a lefty who sometimes played wearing his cap backwards, reached the final four in Stone Mountain, twice playing for a medal, and hitting a tweener on the penultimate point of his semifinal against Spain’s Sergi Bruguera.

He lost both medal-round matches, including the bronze match to Indian Leander Paes, who won the U.S. Open mixed doubles last month with another 1996 Olympic singles tennis player, Swiss Martina Hingis. Hingis is attempting to return to the Olympics next year for the first time since 1996.

In 2004, Chile’s Nicolas Massu won singles and doubles gold in Athens having never reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam in singles.

Bellucci debuted at the Olympics in 2008 and hasn’t won a single Games match. He rose from a No. 85 overall ranking in Beijing to No. 42 going into the London 2012 Olympics, where he forced then-Wimbledon semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to three sets. Bellucci and partner Andre Sa were the only doubles pair to take a set off Americans Bob and Mike Bryan at London 2012.

“Beijing I was very surprised, because I was very young and had no idea,” Bellucci said. “In London, I had a very tough draw against Tsonga. Let’s see if I can have more luck in Brazil to have a better draw.”

Not even the great Gustavo Kuerten could sniff an Olympic medal. The three-time French Open champion — the only Brazilian man to win a Grand Slam — couldn’t do better than the quarterfinals in 2000 and 2004.

The analysis of Bellucci in the scope of Kuerten, who is of a similar tall, thin build, has silenced in recent years.

“They used to say that when I was young, when I was starting to play well,” said Bellucci, whose four ATP titles came on Kuerten’s favorite surface, clay, while the Rio Olympic tournament will be on hard courts. “They want to compare me and Guga [Kuerten], but anyway they are not comparing anymore because Guga is so much bigger than me.”

As much as Bellucci tries to keep expectations low, he urges that his sport is one of the most popular in Brazil.

“I think soccer, for sure, is No. 1 and then volleyball is second and then tennis, I think,” he said. “I think we have more people playing tennis than volleyball because I think all the ages can play tennis.”

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