Dispatch June 2009

Let the (2016) Games Begin!

Which sports have the best shot at attaining medal status—and which cities may be pulling ahead in the bid to host? The real competition starts long before the opening ceremonies.

They may be seven years away, but this week was huge for the Olympics of 2016. Delegates from the four cities still in contention to host the games—Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid—gathered for a week of meetings and glad-handing at the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Also schmoozing were the leaders of seven global sports federations—the international governing bodies of golf, karate, squash, rugby, baseball, softball, and roller sports—each seeking medal sport status. With the IOC's decisions on who will host in 2016 and what sports will be added that year due in a few months, the conference in Lausanne was a last, best chance to woo IOC members.

For the federations, getting on the Olympic program can mean the difference between their sport being a fringe hobby or a global game. And competition is especially tight this year, with seven sports fighting for two slots and no guarantee that both, or either, will be filled.

So which sports have the best shot? Decades from now, could, say, squash, buoyed by Olympic exposure, become the world's new favorite game? Don't count on it. Squash is an awful spectator sport, hard to follow with that little ball ricocheting everywhere at 100+ mph. The game largely owes its 2016 candidacy to one man, The Prince of Malaysia, Tunku Imran—a squash player and patron who also happens to be a member of the IOC.

Karate may be a stronger contender, as it doesn’t require the construction of any special kind of facilities, and could draw a wide audience because it’s practiced around the world. The style of karate under consideration is a "non-contact" version – meaning that competitors pull punches and, as in wrestling, points are awarded for executing specific moves.

Golf, too, has a decent chance, but the Good Walk Spoiled is not without drawbacks. IOC President Jacque Rogge has said he favors sports with the broadest possible appeal, and golf is expensive to play, has an unfortunate history of discrimination and, in a linguistic irony, isn’t very green. Still, the game is played in virtually every country on earth (and even on the moon), and marquee names from the PGA and European Tours are excited about the idea of playing in the Olympics, which would make for big TV ratings for the IOC. In case you were wondering, Tiger Woods will be 40 in 2016, plenty young enough to compete.

Baseball and softball were on the Beijing program, but won't be in London 2012. The IOC voted them out in 2005, in what some allege was a not-very-thinly veiled show of anti-Americanism. At this point, the prospects of getting both sports back onto the program are slim, due to complicated rules concerning gender equity: When both were in the games, they filled two spots on the roster of summer Olympic sports, yet served to fulfill the gender equity requirements for one another. But now, seeking readmission, they are in competition for those two spots not only with one another, but with five other sports. And not enough men play softball, nor women baseball, for either to earn acceptance on its own.

International Baseball Federation President Harvey Schiller did propose that the two sports jointly submit a request for inclusion, essentially as men's and women's versions of the same sport. But International Softball President Don Porter refused, insisting their sport is not "women's baseball." True enough. Softball players aren't the ones getting caught juicing. But that baseball/softball distinction, so clear to American eyes, can be lost on the rest of the world, and the two disciplines will most likely split votes. Ah well, maybe in 2020.

For possible dark horses, look at Rugby Sevens and Roller Sports. The former is a shortened form of rugby, already globally popular and a one-time Olympic event. The latter, Roller Sports, is a belated attempt by the IOC to embrace extreme and/or action sports and attract the two—count 'em, two—generations who've grown up with them. Whatever the Winter Olympics does on ice and snow, Roller Sports does on wheels—speed-skating, roller hockey, inline downhill and freestyle. Don't scoff. Inline-skating is cheap, gender-neutral, easy to officiate and could make for compelling TV.

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Hampton Stevens writes about sports and popular culture for ESPN the Magazine, Maxim, Playboy.com, The Kansas City Star and many other print and digital publications. He lives in Kansas City, Kansas with a dog named Ginger.

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