I was walking to practice in San Francisco last week when a smartly dressed city fellow in a suit and trainers passed me on the pavement/sidewalk on a skateboard. How novel, I thought. San Francisco takes some covering, so that’s a clever way to move around quickly. I didn’t know people used skateboards anymore.
I’m playing a tour event here, the Netsuite Open, which is one of the best. Squash is in good hands when it looks like this, the portable glass court lighting up the Embarcadero, sparkling away each evening next to the Bay Bridge. With the increasing numbers of events, the recent successful integration of women’s and men’s tours, and with spectacles like this showcasing world class athletes, you might feel the sport is arriving. Except in Olympic terms we haven’t arrived. In fact, we are all over the place.
For the umpteenth time squash tried to sell itself and lost. We have pleaded for years and hoped to appeal to a very powerful governing committee responsible for the world’s greatest sporting event, and were rejected again. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
We have dared to think that we can’t be too far away from securing Olympic inclusion over the years, but after our latest attempt five sports have been recommended by Tokyo officials as better options for 2020. It was always going to be ropey, as Japan has not traditionally been strong as a squash nation. So when it came to the five chosen sports on Monday morning, karate was understandably given the nod as it is practically the national sport. Baseball and softball were also natural picks: they will fill arenas and put money in the bank. Surfing also was chosen, which is a fair shout; it’s a tough sport that is enjoyed by millions of people across the world.
Then came sport climbing and skateboarding. Judging by the reaction I’ve seen and heard, many folks were not aware such things subsisted as sports. We knew about climbing, but what is sport climbing? Do these sports have governing bodies and world titles? Are they televised and are there rules? Do they have infrastructures and do millions of people do them? I’m not trying to be clever, just asking the questions. Any sport that encourages activity and participation is a great thing, I’m not here to admonish any sport that provides this outlet. I don’t know enough about them to say what appeal they would give to Tokyo. Clearly more than squash.
I’m not going to rant. Bite thy tongue. We’ve been told to not react negatively, criticise those in charge or lambast other sports, but squash people are struggling to stop themselves at this stage. Every person who asks questions about the Olympics asks with disdain why other sports are selected before squash, and it now seems that people are laughing. It was acid enough to play second fiddle to golf and rugby sevens, but at least people who asked us understood that they are established and recognised entities.
I’m the president on the Professional Squash Association board, and the official line from them and the World Squash Federation has been extremely gracious, as always. Well done to them for that, but there’s some feeling now that collectively it might be very difficult for many of those who care deeply about the sport to keep reacting peaceably, and merely say “Oh well, next time”. It has been back-breaking work for our associations to lobby for inclusion year after year. We’ve produced swanky and expensive promotional videos with money we didn’t have and we have enlisted every celebrity we could get our hands on, as if we were inferior, to hold posters up saying things such as: “Squash for the Olympics – I’m in are you?”
I won’t go through the many reasons why squash should be in the Olympic programme. God knows we’ve said it all enough, but I will say this. By all means include skateboarding. If that sport has the greater appeal come 2020, then so be it. But consider Ramy Ashour and Nicol David, who are two of the game’s greatest players. Ramy may be unknown to Guardian readers, but he is one of the most ingenious racket players of all time. That is any racket, any sport, ever. And that’s not just my opinion. Don’t take my word for it; watch his videos online.
Nicol is the highest achieving women’s squash player of all time and she is one of the most decorated athletes alive. Think of some of our greatest athletes and how many world titles they have to their name: Mo Farah (five) Jessica Ennis-Hill (two) Beth Tweddle (three), Paula Radcliffe (six), Becky Adlington (two), Wayne Rooney (none). Nicol has won eight.
These two outstanding athletes have consistently and tirelessly pursued and promoted the Olympic cause for squash – Nicol even orchestrated flashmobs in the streets of Kuala Lumpur – and essentially their message to unseen dignitaries in Swiss boardrooms is this: “Please, please accept us!” Ramy and Nicol shouldn’t need to ask anyone to accept them. Imagine Andy Murray or Usain Bolt making these videos, pleading for a committee to let them compete on the world’s greatest stage. It’s poor form to keep running these athletes around in circles, and it’s time there was some transparency.
Nobody is quite sure why the sport has suffered these repeated failures. The Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world. Of course we want to be there, we dearly want to be there but, with respect, all we ever do is try to justify ourselves. These athletes, some of the greatest athletes alive, shouldn’t need to do this. This is our sport, it is what it is, and it’s getting better all the time. Take it or leave it. We want the Olympics and we hope the Olympics wants us. But must we beg?
Back in San Francisco we are all comforted that the tournament has the crowds in raptures every night. It’s a fine thing to play in front of such warm and enthusiastic people. The spectators may or may not have heard about this latest Olympic rejection but squash goes on, Olympics or not.
I found myself strolling down Divisadero Street on the last day of the competition and there, just as a reminder, were the words “Skate Shop”. I had never seen one before but there it was: a shop with skateboards. I thought back to the guy in the suit. Twice in a week. Maybe I had my eyes closed all this time. Skateboarding was made for the Olympics. Moving on…