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Squash Takes a Clutch Shot at the Olympics

Mention the Olympics to Nicol David, and you’re likely to see a range of emotions in the top women’s squash player in the world. Elation, disappointment, a persevering attitude coupled with a dignified fatigue, and--most of all--confidence.

“I am very passionate about the chance for squash to take part in the Olympic Games,” said David, who hails from Malaysia. “I know from other multi sport games I do participate in how their four year cycle is such an important target to train for and peak at [...] Every one of us players would do everything we possibly can to participate at the Olympic Games and to live the dream of becoming an Olympian.”

Nicol--a record seven-time women’s world squash champion who recently won a Gold Medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games--is one of many players who have been at the forefront of a movement to get squash included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a bid that seemingly failed last year in Buenos Aires when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose wrestling over both squash and a combo bid of baseball/softball. Wrestling received 49 votes for inclusion, while softball/baseball received 24. Squash received 22 votes.

“It was difficult,” David said of the IOC’s decision. “That was one of our best campaigns.”

Barring a last-minute intervention by the IOC, David fears her Olympic aspirations will never come to fruition with this latest setback. At 31, the demands of the sport will likely see her retiring before any changes in the Olympics’ prestigious lineup.

That is, unless a few key squash advocates have anything to say about it.

In recent months, the IOC has reopened discussions concerning adding to the Olympics agenda above the customary 28-sport lineup.

"We have not given up hope,” said Heather Deayton, World Squash Federation vice-president. “In fact, we have our fingers crossed squash will still be played at the 2020 Olympics now [that] the IOC is looking at ways to increase the medal sports.”

The path to getting squash included in the Olympics has been long and arduous, including two previous setbacks with failed bids in 2005 and 2009, a frustrating succession of failure considering the first bid in ‘05 resulted in squash topping seven different shortlists, though it failed to get the required two-thirds majority vote for inclusion.

In the aftermath of those initial failures, websites such as Sqaush2020.com and GetSquashInTheOlympics.com sprang up, rallying for support and lending a hand to professional squash associations such as the World Squash Federation (WSF). The numerous campaigners came together to spearhead a 2013 effort that many believed would finally be successful. Following the decision by the IOC last fall, however, the disappointment was evident in the squash world. But so was the hope.

“Today’s decision is heart-breaking for the millions of Squash players around the world, particularly given the 10-year journey we have been on to join the Olympic Games Sports Programme,” said World Squash Federation President N Ramachandran following last year’s decision. “As the only new Olympic sport on today’s shortlist, we believed Squash offered something for the future and I still hope that our inclusion may still be possible.”

The optimism in Ramachandran’s statement may be warranted, based on what most perceive as positive feedback received after their unsuccessful bid last year. The consensus was reassuring: no, squash has not been included today, but there’s a very good chance it will be in the future. Maybe even sooner than later.

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

The enthusiasm is a direct result of statements made by IOC President Thomas Bach, among others. Though wrestling won out last year--bringing up rumblings of a seven-year inclusion rule for new sports in the Olympics that would essentially bar squash from making another bid until the 2024 games--Bach has left discussions open for the possibility of some drastic changes to the Olympic bid process, and the Olympics lineup as a whole.

“There is a chance [a sport could be added],” said Bach following last year’s 125th IOC session, during which Tokyo was selected as the site of the 2020 games and Bach was elected to replace Jacques Rogge as IOC President. “If everybody agrees then we do not need to apply this seven-year rule. We could take any decision at the end of next year.”

The statement came after a meeting of the IOC in which Bach revealed his Olympic reform plan--dubbed the “Olympic Agenda 2020”--a plan Bach says is meant to be a blueprint that will inject new life into the olympic movement and shape its future by utilizing three major themes: sustainability, credibility, and youth. The IOC is set to meet this December to discuss the proposed changes to the Olympic program.

“Currently, we’re at 28 sports,” Bach said. “Perhaps we won’t have to cancel disciplines to increase and keep the number of athletes fixed, but just reduce the quota. First the concept has to be clarified, and then we’ll act. We can go from 26 to 27, 28, 29 or 30 sports.”

Bach went on to speak directly on the Olympics core rule system, and the possibility of drastic changes.

“The Charter can also be amended,” Bach stated. “Also removing the limitation of the choice to be made 7 years before. There can be more elasticity...Perhaps a change can already be made with a view to Tokyo 2020.”

The statement was encouraging to squash advocates, but didn’t come as a surprise. To supporters, Bach’s statements were essentially old news.

“It was discussed openly both at the conference and at the [annual general meeting], and I would have taken from the meeting that there was still support for the process to carry on,” said Squash New Zealand CEO Jim O’Grady. “There was certainly no discussion about just giving up and not having another go.”

Others are even more optimistic.

"We have learnt from some very reliable and senior officials [that] squash will have a great chance to be included for the Tokyo Olympic Games on top of its 28 current sports," said Hong Kong National Squash Team head coach Tony Choi Yuk-kwan.

Squash players and officials have argued long and hard this past decade for its legitimacy. With over 175 countries and 20 million people competing and participating annually, the sport has a legitimate fan base. Companies such as the high-end sporting clothes brand Salming--the official clothing and shoe partner of the Professional Squash Association--and their North American distributor Clutch Sports have seen a marked increase in their sales revenue in recent years due to the increased popularity of squash. The signings of legendary squash players like Amr Shabana have also led Salming and Clutch Sports to higher revenue streams and publicity, opening up a market potential that could pay dividends if the sport were to be included in what’s widely recognized as the epitome of sports competition: The Olympics.

Recently voted as the World’s Healthiest Sport by Forbes Magazine, squash has received the backing of numerous sports figures, both in the squash world and outside of it.

“I think it's a wonderful sport,” said tennis legend Roger Federer in a statement backing squash’s bid for 2020 Olympic inclusion. “It's unfortunate some sports don't get the opportunity to be in the Olympics. I think squash would deserve it. They run a great tour and they have great players and characters. I'd personally be very happy for them.”

A mainstay in many world competitions, squash has also received much support from members of other sports committees, such as Prince Imran Tunku--President of the Commonwealth Games Federation--who recently vouched for squash during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. In a statement released in June, Prince Tunku implored the IOC to seek “fairness and justice” when considering squash for the 2020 Tokyo games.

“We have a lot of sympathy amongst IOC members,” said Prince Tunku, who also serves as Malaysia's IOC member. “The game has improved a lot [and] the presentation is fabulous.”

Squash remains one of only four sports included in the Commonwealth Games that isn’t part of the Olympic agenda.

“To me, IOC values are about fairness and justice,” added Prince Tunku. “And if they are going to let new sports into the Tokyo programme, then squash is one of the sports to be considered very seriously."

Many others have argued more practical points for the sports relevance, including a few key members of organizations directly involved with the Olympic bidding process.

"Squash has good development all over the world,” said Timothy Fok Tsun-Ting, IOC member and President of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee. “The cost of hosting the event is relatively inexpensive as you don't have to build new venues. This fits the idea under the initiatives.”

Nobody feels the angst of this back-and-forth process more than the players who wish to compete though.

Enter Saurav Ghosal, a professional squash player currently ranked #15 in the world, and rising. Last year, Ghosal became the first Indian player to reach the quarterfinals of the World Championships, and most recently became the first Indian player to receive a silver medal in the individual singles at the 17th Asian Games at Incheon, losing the final match to Abdullah Al-Muzayen. In the same competition, he would later lead the Indian squash team to its first ever Gold Medal.

Yet, according to Ghosal, he’d trade everything for a chance to participate in the ultimate competition.

“No matter how many tournaments you win,” Ghosal says. “The Olympics remain the greatest show on earth. That I cannot be a part of [them], frustrates me.”

Admittedly, not very many people understand Ghosal’s plight more than Nicol David. After years of dominating her craft, the idea of retiring without competing for the ultimate prize is understandably upsetting. Forever optimistic though, David sees this most recent Olympic push as just one more piece of motivation, with a few more elite years left in her career.

The way Nicol David sees it, the only thing left to do is keep playing, keep making the game exciting, and hope for the best.

“This year it is purely according to what the IOC is going to decide internally,” David says. “So I'm just going to play, compete and do my best to showcase the sport."