Squash eyes place in Olympics after overhauling game

AP, GENEVA, SWITZERLAND

Tue, Sep 03, 2013 - Page 19

In the two-year contest for a single spot in the 2020 Olympics, squash long seemed to be the front-runner.

The World Squash Federation delivered a more dynamic and television-friendly game to answer constructive criticism following two previous failed attempts to gain a spot on the Olympic program.

Squash also figured to be popular with future hosts, which are stretched to stage 28 sports within budget and without creating “white elephant” venues. Squash offers a flexible, cost-effective option with potential to find an eye-catching location on the city’s landscape.

Then, in February, everything changed.

Seven months before the vote on Sunday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) executive board upset all calculations by removing wrestling from the list of core Olympic sports.

When squash was — as predicted — chosen by the same IOC board on a three-sport shortlist in May, it was alongside a strong showing from wrestling and the combined forces of baseball and softball, two more sports which recently lost Olympic status.

“As far as the World Squash Federation [WSF] is concerned, we are looking at it as two matches,” WSF president N. Ramachandran said in an interview. “The first match was to get on to the shortlist, which we did. The second match is now to get into the Olympic Games program.”

Ramachandran was relatively new to his role four years ago, but by July 2011, the Indian businessman was leading a widespread overhaul of the Victorian-era game when the IOC confirmed its candidacy for 2020 inclusion against baseball, softball, karate, roller sports, sports climbing, wakeboard and wushu.

Most eye-catching are colored glass courts on which scores, replays and video review decisions — using the Hawk-Eye camera system like tennis, cricket and English Premier League soccer — are projected.

“The floor of the court becomes a scoreboard,” Ramachandran said.

First-time viewers also now discover a simpler scoring system where players get a point for each rally won, replacing the traditional rule of scoring only when holding serve. Matches are played faster and extra referees help judge on let calls when players impede each other in the confined court space.

The court is potentially key to the appeal of squash, which has dropped glass boxes into distinctive tournament locations such as the Pyramids in Egypt and Grand Central Station in New York.

“I could do it on the bridge over the Bosphorus, in a bullfighting ring or in the Imperial Palace gardens,” said Ramachandran, eyeing his sport’s potential home in 2020 in Istanbul, Madrid or Tokyo — a decision that IOC members will make on Saturday in Buenos Aires.

“You tell me where to put it, and I will do it,” he said. “You can put them up in a matter of three days.”

Ramachandran sees squash fulfilling its Olympic mandate because an Olympic gold medal would instantly become the pinnacle of a player’s career.

Even with only 32 men and 32 women playing in the Olympic events, squash would likely see medals won by less heralded Olympic teams.

“It’s a chance of getting new countries on to the medal podium,” Ramachandran said.

“We have had male and female world champions from each of the five continents. Tell me how many sports will have that?” he added.