The Summer Olympic Sports of the Future

These eight emerging events are knocking on the International Olympic Committee's door.


"Maybe next time." Sometimes it's all Olympians can say in the closing stages of the Games—be they the McKayla Maroneys looking for redemption or the Missy Franklins hungry for more 24-carat hardware, athletes will undoubtedly travel home with their thoughts on the Games to come.

They're not alone. With the 30th Olympic Games over, athletes and spectators alike are looking ahead to the Games of the future. At the next Summer Games, rugby and golf will both award medals for the first time since 1924 and 1904, respectively. It's an exciting development, to be sure—but for every elated Rory McIlroy, there's a disappointed Nicol David still waiting for a chance to get on the medal podium.

When the International Olympic Committee meets in Buenos Aires next year to vote on the sports of the 2020 Olympic Games, eight sports will be vying for a single open slot on the program. Baseball and softball, booted from the Olympics after the 2008 Games, will be lobbying to win their spots back; meanwhile, six other emerging sports will be knocking at the Olympics' door, hoping for a shot at newfound Olympic glory.

So here's a brief overview of the potential Summer Olympic sports of the future: Karate, wushu, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, and wakeboarding are all shortlisted candidates for the 2020 Olympics—and since lacrosse and mixed martial arts have both thrown their hats into the ring for future Olympic inclusion, their chances are worth mulling over as well.



Why it's a contender: The third time's the charm—or at least, that's what the World Squash Federation should keep telling itself. The 2020 petition will be the third consecutive bid by the federation to become a medal-awarding sport. Right now, there are 22 different countries from four different continents represented in the top 50 men's players, and the sport has been played in the Commonwealth Games since 1998. Considering that its distant, far less worldly cousin table tennis already holds a spot in the Olympics, the exclusion of squash from the Games does seem a little unclear. After suffering two heartbreakingly narrow failures to receive a majority vote, worldwide squash leaders finally decided to try something new: The WSF hired Olympic bid strategist Mike Lee, the man who put rugby back on the map for the 2016 Games in Rio, to maximize their chances before they present their case to the IOC next year. The international federation has also proposed a TV-friendly court with glass walls to sweeten the deal for sponsoring networks.

What's working against it: Very little, at this point. In fact, it remains a mystery why squash's previous two Olympic bids were denied, even to squash analysts like The Telegraph's Rod Gilmour. "Previous administrators were told all they had to do was apply to the IOC and they were in," Gilmour wrote in an e-mail, and compared squash's last-minute failure to receive the controversial two-thirds majority vote to "falling at the last hurdle." Gilmour suspects the IOC saw opportunities for profit in the other sports bidding for 2016 inclusion—hence the selection of rugby and golf. This time, though, he wrote, "if the sport doesn't get in, real questions have to be asked of the Olympic ethos and equality."



Why they're contenders: Wushu and karate, full-contact martial arts with roots in China and Japan, respectively, have both flirted with Olympic medal competitions in the past, neither one successfully making it official. Karate was expected to become a medal sport after its inclusion as a demonstration sport in 1992; similarly, Chinese martial-artists' ears pricked up after a wushu tournament took place alongside the Beijing games in 2008 (though IOC president Jacques Rogge was quick to point out that the tournament was in no way officially affiliated with the Olympic Games).

A lack of global appeal certainly won't be an obstacle for either discipline in getting to the Olympics. Karate is practiced by more than 100 million athletes in 180 countries, while wushu, known in some circles as kung fu, is most famous for being the preferred fighting style of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and, of course, Kung Fu Panda. Additionally, competitive wushu, according to a 2008 report by China Daily, has metamorphosed over the years into "a graceful art similar to gymnastic floor exercises"—gymnastic floor exercises with "full-contact sparring," "punching maneuvers," and "flashy Chinese sabers," that is. In other words, concerns over TV appeal sit squarely between slim and none.

Both martial arts would be relatively cheap additions to the Olympic program; competitions can be held in the same arenas as gymnastics and other martial arts events. Its global following could mean an opportunity for smaller nations to medal. And if Tokyo is chosen over Istanbul and Madrid to host the 2020 Games, karate may enjoy a special home-country advantage at the selection stage.

What's working against them: The Summer Olympics already awards medals in judo and tae kwon do—to include a third martial art might seem excessive to some IOC voters. Many also blamed the World Karate Federation's moratorium on member clubs associating with non-members for karate's failures to be admitted as a medal sport in the past.



Why they're a contender: A sport group that includes rink hockey, inline hockey, inline speed skating, artistic roller skating, and, perhaps most notably, roller derby, the roller sports category's bid for the Olympics has garnered more than a few eye-rolls along the way. But before you scoff, consider this: One crucial feature that roller derby in particular brings to the table is its popularity among women. The sport has sobered up its image since its hot-pants era in the 1960s, and its revamped, feminism-aligned popularity in recent years (as emphasized by films like Whip It and Derby, Baby!) continues to spread to women across North America and Europe. Some might even say, too, that the Olympics committee owes one to the world of female-fueled sports—the IOC did, after all, eliminate softball after the 2008 Games.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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