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A Fresh Start?

The under-fire president of the World Squash Federation will step down at this year’s annual meeting claiming that, despite the sport’s repeated failure to win a place at the Olympic Games, it is in better shape than when he took office eight years ago.

Narayana Ramachandran, who is also president of the troubled Indian Olympic Association, came under attack from the Professional Squash Association, which described him as “an embarrassment to the sport.” In blaming him for the last in a line of failures to win a place on the Olympic Games schedule, the PSA stressed its concerns that the president was being sidetracked by his IOA responsibilities and that attacks on his personal credibility were hindering efforts to win hearts and minds at the International Olympic Committee.

Last year a battle broke out between Ramachandran and the Indian Hockey Federation president, who accused the former of bribery and corruption. Ramachandran reportedly responded by suing for $1.5m (€1.4m).

The PSA’s frustration at the lack of progress on Olympic inclusion has been fuelled by fears that Ramachandran’s role at the IOA has represented a possible conflict of interests, and that the bad press surrounding his troubles at that organisation and elsewhere has tainted squash.

In association with a number of key national federations, the PSA has launched a Task Force to look into every aspect of the management of the sport, including its Olympic aspirations. Squash has worked hard to make itself Olympicfriendly over the past two decades and many observers have expressed their surprise that the sport has failed to land the biggest of all prizes. Olympic recognition would not only deliver significant revenues from the Games but, in many countries, would open the door to national government funding, which plays a significant role in creating facilities and paying for development programmes.

With national associations such as France, the US, Egypt and Australia joining the coalition to support the PSA Task Force initiative, the desire for change in squash is evident. Egyptian Squash Association president Assem Khalifa told the PSA’s website: “It is critical we have leadership which effectively supports the sport. A Task Force that brings together the elite professionals in squash and the federations driving the sport’s growth, evaluating how to move the game forward in a positive way, is very welcome. A fresh start may be needed; certainly change is a must.”

However, despite the failures, Ramachandran shows little sign of accepting responsibility.

“Two other presidents tried in the decades before me and it did not happen,” he said. “Let’s face it – I tried my level best and if someone else can take over and succeed, then good luck to them. I am not controlled by the PSA. They are playing politics and I am fed up with it.”

Among the accusations of failure levelled against Ramachandran is the decision to jettison Vero, the highly successful communications agency that helped World Rugby to get its Sevens format into the Olympics and has since been hired by surfing, which will be among the additional sports on show at Tokyo 2020.

While his adversaries see the move as shortsighted, the president maintained that the costs of bringing in ‘outsiders’ to develop strategy and presentations were becoming too high and added that the PSA offered no financial support, although it did make its films available for presentations. “The WSF has spent a lot of money which has come from federations and donations from individuals. We needed to get back to our day-to-day activities, which is why a line was drawn under bidding,” he said.

The conundrum is how a sport that appears to tick most Olympic boxes remains out in the cold. Squash has responded creatively to a number of its challenges, including the difficulties of developing a game played on a closed court as a viable media product. Today squash is played worldwide with the PSA events in the vanguard.

“The professional tour has garnered a huge amount of momentum over the past few years, including the amalgamation between the men’s and women’s tours,” PSA president Ziad Al- Turki said. “Prize money for the tour and awareness of squash is on the ascendancy, and women are approaching full parity on compensation and opportunities to compete. A clear and concise strategy supported by best practice governance is needed now more than ever to both support the sport at the grassroots globally and to ensure that squash fulfils its great potential.”

The disconnection between the success of the tour and the sport’s inability to build enough traction to win a place at the Olympics was exacerbated when squash was not even selected by Tokyo 2020 as a demonstration sport. According to Ramachandran, that is “because organising committees select sports that their countries have a better chance of winning medals in, and Japan is not a strong squash country.”

A WSF spokesman summed up the frustration by saying: “We genuinely thought that we would tick all the Olympic boxes. We have an excellent TV product and it is a worldwide game, our profile has grown and all the other major racquet sports are in the Games. Now we’re not in the 2020 Games and we have to look to 2024 and ask whether we want to go through it again.”

However, Ramachandran insists that the general outlook is far from negative. “Squash today is certainly stronger than when I took over,” he said. “There is greater recognition of the sport at the IOC. There is growth around the world in non-traditional countries. We have junior champions emerging from countries like Colombia and Peru, and there is traction in China, which will host a World Junior Championship.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Ramachandran also refuses to acknowledge a split between the PSA and the world governing body. “We need each other,” he added. “The PSA is part and parcel of the WSF."

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