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Is This an Olympic Sport?
June 06, 2005
The IOC is voting on whether to eliminate some events and add others--a contentious first step toward freshening up the Games
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June 06, 2005

Is This An Olympic Sport?

The IOC is voting on whether to eliminate some events and add others--a contentious first step toward freshening up the Games

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Rugby's World Cup (for 15-man teams) is the third most watched sporting event on television, after the Olympics and soccer's World Cup. Golf's television ratings over the past decade have never been higher. Both sports have upscale demographics, which could boost Olympic sponsorship. Neither relies on judging--a plus--and both are known for good sportsmanship. Rogge played rugby. Tiger plays golf.

But golf has issues. Both the PGA and the European PGA tours are against its inclusion in the Olympics, since once every four years it would take the spotlight off one of their regular events. And even Fay, who is also executive director of the USGA, admits, "The Olympics should be the pinnacle of a sport, and no one could say that about golf without having his nose grow. But if tennis is in, golf should be in."

Rugby has a stronger case. A rugby sevens game can be played in just 15 minutes--14 minutes of running time plus a one-minute halftime. The Olympic championship would be the pinnacle of rugby sevens competition, so the best players would attend. And the entire 12-team tournament could be played in two days. Moreover, it wouldn't require new facilities: The games could be played on the soccer fields used during that sport's preliminary rounds. "Everything we've heard about our proposal has been favorable," says Doug Arnot, head of USA Rugby. "The biggest hurdle will be whether someone is kicked off the island."

Illogically, because of the way the voting is set up, some of the sports most often ridiculed by fans as unworthy of being in the Games--synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, trampoline--won't be in any jeopardy in the balloting. Just as synchro is classified by the IOC as an event within aquatics, so are rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline considered events within gymnastics. IOC members will never vote out such marquee sports as aquatics and gymnastics. That's not to say that the reevaluation process won't focus attention on the much-lampooned sports and perhaps force the IOC to take a harder look at them.

So who should be ousted in the July vote? "Any sport that doesn't send its best athletes to the Games," Arnot offers. "The IOC wants the Olympics to be the top of the mountain."

Baseball and soccer fall short of that standard, but soccer is too popular globally to eliminate. Baseball looks more vulnerable; it has little support in Europe, where more than 40% of IOC members reside, and top major leaguers will never be given time off in midseason to take part in the Olympics.

Softball and modern pentathlon, the other sports targeted in 2002, have marshaled considerable support since and now seem secure enough to pass the vote. In the latter case members seem sympathetic to a tiny sport that is so vulnerable and so embedded in the Games' fabric. (Modern pentathlon was created specifically for the Olympics by Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin.) "I respect President Rogge for taking on this issue," says Bob Ctvrtlik, a former volleyball player and the junior IOC member from the U.S. "He's trying to keep a modern program, and all you're doing by advocating for change is making enemies. But it'll be very difficult to get half the members to vote a sport off. The problem is, you could really put an end to a sport like modern pentathlon with a no vote."

While other sports have been mentioned as candidates for removal--taekwondo, for one, which has just been through an embezzlement scandal involving its federation's former president, and even boxing, which has been rife with judging fiascos--the recent backpedaling by Rogge suggests that all 28 Olympic sports could survive the July vote, though perhaps not unscathed. "I think he's positioning himself for the future," says Easton of the reform-minded IOC president. "Some of the fury will have subsided, and everyone will be a little more receptive to change. Unless there's a problem they're not addressing, I think all the sports that are in now should stay. For this vote I think the message is, Shape up or ship out."

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