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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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The first shot was fired in August 2002, at an International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was a simple proposal by the IOC's Program Commission to improve the Summer Games by adding two of the world's most popular sports: golf and rugby. To make room, the commission recommended eliminating three existing Olympic sports: baseball, modern pentathlon and softball. That's when the trouble began. � The proposal stirred up such a hornet's nest that it never came to a vote three months later at an IOC session in Mexico City. The episode proved again that while the Olympic family has been terrific at broadening its program to include everything from taekwondo to circus events such as synchronized swimming and trampoline, it has been incapable of seriously considering whether those, or other sports, really belong in the Games. No sport has been removed from the Olympics since polo got the ax after the 1936 Games.

Consequently, the Summer Olympics have become supersized. Athlete participation has ballooned 63% in the last 20 years, from 6,802 in Los Angeles in 1984 to the record 11,099 in Athens last year (which exceeded the supposed limit of 10,500 that the IOC adopted three years ago). Seven sports were added in that span: table tennis and tennis (1988), badminton and baseball ('92), softball ('96) and taekwondo and triathlon (2000).

Hosting the Olympics has become so gargantuan a task that cities and countries can go deep into hock to hold them; IOC president Jacques Rogge has long been concerned that the size and cost have made it impossible for smaller, poorer nations ever to host the Games. Yet when faced with the prospect of voting out three small federations in Mexico City, delegate after delegate spoke passionately in their defense. In response, recalls Jim Easton, one of three U.S. representatives on the 116-member IOC, " President Rogge wisely said, 'Let's go back and look at all the sports, not just these three.'"

That's exactly what the IOC has done--and for the first time some Summer Games federations are worried about the Olympic future of their sports. At its early July meeting in Singapore, the same session at which the 2012 host city will be chosen, the IOC membership will hold an unprecedented vote, by secret ballot, on the fate of all 28 Summer Olympic sports. Aquatics, in or out? Archery, yea or nay? And so on, through wrestling. A sport will need more than 50% of the votes to remain on the program for 2012; if any sport is voted out, the IOC Executive Board will nominate a replacement from the five sports on the official waiting list: golf, karate, roller sports (road racing on inline skates), rugby (the seven-to-a-side version) and squash. The replacement sport will need two-thirds support to be added to the Olympic family; if it gets that, it will need only a simple majority in a second vote to be added to the 2012 program.

The IOC has tried to be methodical in analyzing which sports deserve to remain in--or be added to--the Games. (No sport can be added unless another is removed; at that 2002 Mexico City session Rogge succeeded in getting a 28-sport, 301-event cap placed on the Summer Olympics.) Last fall the Program Commission sent a questionnaire to all Summer Games sports federations as well as governing bodies of the five waiting-list sports, asking them for information in 33 areas, including ticket sales, media coverage, venue costs, television production costs, environmental impact and gender equity. The resulting report, due to be sent to IOC members this month, will not rank the sports by desirability or present its own conclusions; nevertheless, some federations are concerned that the inevitable comparisons could turn sports against one another and damage the Games.

Members of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) are so upset that a vote on their future is even being taken that the organization's president, Denis Oswald, called a special ASOIF session for this week in Geneva to try to clear the air. Outspoken former international sailing federation president Paul Henderson fired off an angry letter to the heads of the federations in support of ASOIF members, saying the IOC vote reduces the federations to "the level of beggars." Passionately expressing the sports federations' sense of entitlement, he wrote, "IFs [international federations] hold Sport together every day of every year so that the IOC can come along at the end of each Quadrennium and supply the Fireworks. Yes IFs are rewarded financially for what IFs bring to the table, but it is our right, not a handout from the IOC." (Sailing, interestingly, sent 400 athletes to the Athens Olympics--roughly the number for golf, karate, roller sports, rugby and squash if all were added to the Games.)

Elimination from the Olympics would mean the loss of both the prestige of participating on the world's largest athletic stage and the substantial financial rewards cited by Henderson. Television revenue from Athens enabled the IOC to fork over a record $256 million to ASOIF members for the next quadrennium, a pie divvied up on the basis of a sport's size and popularity. Track and field took home the largest slice, $25.7 million; aquatics (swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and water polo), basketball, cycling, gymnastics, soccer, tennis and volleyball got $12.5 million each, and so on. Some of the IOC funding is used to broaden the popularity of sports--buying softball equipment for schools in Kazakhstan, for example. But a significant portion also goes to pay the administrative expenses of the federations, 16 of which happen to be headquartered in Switzerland, home of the IOC. It's all very chummy, or traditionally has been.

Rogge has found himself caught between the 28 current sports and the five would-be additions. After the Executive Board met in Berlin in April to decide the voting procedures, he seemingly bent over backward to reassure the former: "There should be no anxiety. Reading the [Program Commission] report, I have only one conclusion: We have very strong federations, and strong federations should have nothing to fear."

Rogge later said he wasn't trying to send a message with that assessment. But his comments took some of the sports trying to get into the Games by surprise. "If one had to handicap it, it sounds like no one's going to be voted out," says David Fay, joint secretary of the International Golf Federation. "It makes you wonder why we went through the process."

The waiting-list sports have been lobbying for their cause, and rugby appears to have created the strongest buzz, with golf running second. "There's a lot of talk about rugby sevens being the first one in," says Easton. Both rugby and golf have been in the Olympics before--rugby from 1900 to '24, golf in 1900 and '04. And while golf got a thumbs-up from the Program Commission to be a medal sport at the 1996 Atlanta Games, that proposal was scuttled after many people, including Anita DeFrantz, the senior IOC member from the U.S., learned that the Olympic tournament would be played at all-male Augusta National. Says DeFrantz, "My issue was with Augusta, not golf."

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