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Moment in the spotlight | Implications of new Olympic sports

THIS AUGUST the International Olympic Committee is expected to approve the inclusion of baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing on the programme of events for the 2020 summer Games in Tokyo.

In June the IOC’s executive board unanimously backed the addition of the sports, which were last year recommended for inclusion at the Games in four years’ time by the Tokyo 2020 organising committee. According to IOC vice-president John Coates, the selection “has a good balance between sports that are popular in Japan and those better at engaging youth, like surfing, skateboarding and sports climbing.”

The competition for a place at Tokyo 2020 was intense. Eight from a total of 26 international federations were shortlisted, with bowling, squash and wushu missing out at the final stage of the process.

Approval

Barring any last-minute hitches, the approval of the five sports at August’s IOC session in Rio is now expected to be a formality. From the IOC’s perspective, the benefits of expanding the programme in Tokyo are obvious. While the body is keen to avoid diluting its brand by including too many sports, the one-off appearances of the new competitions in Tokyo will add 18 events and nearly 500 more athletes, providing more avenues of interest for more brands and broadcast partners.

However, what exactly are the benefits for a sport that is granted a podium of exposure at the biggest sporting event on Earth?

Notwithstanding golf and rugby sevens, which will be contested at this summer’s Games in Rio de Janeiro, the most recent sports to be added to the programme for the summer Games are taekwondo and triathlon. Both sports have been contested at each edition of the event since the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

According to World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) president Chungwon Choue, his sport has benefited immeasurably from the increased exposure and revenue that come with being an Olympic-level sport. To illustrate the fact, almost 80 million people now practise taekwondo worldwide, with the quality of competition at an all-time high.

“The Olympic Games has ensured that taekwondo has become a truly global sport and the additional revenue has been vital in allowing us to reinvest in development and grow the sport,” Choue tells SportBusiness International.

“The inclusion of taekwondo at the Olympic Games was the most significant moment in the history of our federation. It gave us the opportunity to showcase our sport to the world in a way that had not been possible before. Over the last 16 years our federation has grown from representing about 160 member national associations around the world to 206 today.”

Opportunity

For baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing, there is a similar opportunity. However, at this stage it would appear that the opportunity for the new sports will be more fleeting, having only been guaranteed a spot at a single edition of the Games.

Moreover, unlike the established sports that are already part of the programme, the new sports will not receive a share of the revenues generated from Tokyo 2020.

However, even though the approaches of the newly-approved governing bodies may differ to those that have a long-term association with the event, Choue says that the experiences of established Olympic sports should be used as a template.

“I would advise them to approach the Games in the same way as any other international federation is doing,” he adds. “Every IF prepares for the Olympic Games to the best of their ability and does everything they possibly can to deliver the ultimate competition for their athletes, fans, sponsors and the entire Olympic movement.

“The most important thing is to ensure close and regular dialogue with the IOC and the Olympic Games organising committee. The IOC has a vast amount of experience and expertise, and there is always a big opportunity to learn from them. Collaboration is key to a successful event.”

Point to prove

Of the five sports awaiting approval, baseball/softball perhaps has a point to prove more than most.

Baseball has featured at 13 Games in the past, with softball having been contested at four. Both were removed from the programme following Beijing 2008, although in a country that has a burning passion for baseball Japan would appear to be the ideal destination to rekindle the Olympic flame.

However, Mark Dyreson, a professor of kinesiology and history at Pennsylvania State University, and an expert observer of the Olympics, is skeptical.

“For softball (there will be) practically no benefits as beyond the US, Canada, Japan and Australia, softball is just not a global game,” he says. “Baseball had its shot and while many more nations would like to see it get another chance, there is no evidence baseball will do what the IOC now demands of sports – send the best players to the Olympics.

“Baseball has an impossible task. It is linked to softball and given those gender dynamics, baseball has a very difficult road to travel, as there is practically no support for softball in the IOC.”

Dyreson feels that surfing, skateboarding and sports climbing will complement the IOC’s moves towards so-called “lifestyle sports”, but claims that karate would “probably just get lost amidst all the other combat sports.”

Challenge

The challenge for the new arrivals is to prove such doubters wrong and not only justify their place at the 2020 Olympics, but also plant a seed for a repeat performance four years later.

Dyreson is clear about what he believes the key to success will be.

Distinguish your sport from your competitors and look for some connection with broader Olympic narratives

“Make sure you present a telegenic product, focus on youth, beauty and stardom, find a way to distinguish your sport from your competitors, and look for some connection to broader Olympic narratives – echoes of ancient Greek antiquity or global struggle and friendship, for example,” he says. “Ultimately, if you can make your sport look good on television, you have a real chance at inclusion.”

For an established Olympic sport like taekwondo, such an approach is a priority. The WTF will be introducing several innovations in Rio, with the aim of generating a greater interest and ultimately a broader following for the sport.

“At Rio 2016 athletes will wear coloured trousers, representing their nation’s colours, for the very first time at an Olympic Games, transforming the look of the competition and contributing to the colourful, carnival atmosphere of the Games,” Choue adds.

“We will also be using an octagonal mat, which is smaller than the traditional mat and allows athletes to work their opponent from different angles, while the score for a turning kick to the body will be increased from two to three points, encouraging more difficult and exciting techniques. To ensure fairer and more transparent matches, athletes will also wear impact sensors in the head protectors in Rio for the first time.”

According to Choue, it is all about placing “a greater emphasis on sport presentation,” with music and demonstrations also keeping spectators entertained during breaks in play.

“In line with Agenda 2020, IFs are putting a greater focus on engaging with young people and ensuring gender equality,” he adds. “For the new sports, Tokyo 2020 will be a chance to engage with a new generation of young people.”

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