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Sporting Life

Hunger for inclusiveness gives rise to Bloated Games

It is possible that for all your accumulated sporting wisdom you know nothing about backside and blank, kook and rocker. There is no need to panic, for you have four years to figure them out. They are surfing terms and if you turn up in Tokyo in 2020 it will be an Olympic medal sport. Landlocked nations, one might say, will be in untested waters.

The Olympics began yesterday (Singapore time) in Rio and yet the Olympics as we know them have ended. Next time we meet in Tokyo we will encounter dudes with bleached hair, shirtless rock climbers, sinewy skateboarders and more martial artists than anyone requires. Joining taekwondo and judo will be karate. Wushu must be woebegone. That countries can barely bear the burden - financially and organisationally - of the current 28 sports is a minor issue.

Athletes, as you will see over the next 16 days, can't sit still, but then the entire Olympic movement has attention deficit disorder. Fiddling is its birthright. In 1900, for instance, the Games included croquet. One report stated that a single paying spectator attended, so out it went. In the same year they had a 200m obstacle swimming race requiring competitors to go over a pole, then over some boats, then under some boats. This did not last either, neither did lacrosse, nor did the tug of war. To paraphrase our old pal Yoda: Truly weird, the mind of the IOC is.

Now the IOC has agreed to include five more sports specifically for Tokyo 2020, including baseball/softball which are integral to the Japanese sporting experience. More fans, more tickets, more money, more medals: Who's to complain?

Furthermore, the IOC website states that "the additional sports in Tokyo will not... be binding on future host cities". In translation, if India were to host future Olympics, they could push kabaddi, the French petanque, the Americans the NFL and no doubt some unusually odd nation might advocate Pokemon Go. Flexibility in changing sports is a virtue till it is stretched to absurdity.


PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Some will see this as a tampering with tradition, some will view it as sacrilegious: Michael Phelps and skateboarder get the same gold? But maybe we have to let go of the past and ease up on the stuffiness. The IOC is in pursuit of young fans - us middle-aged folk are already captive audiences - who'd rather get another tongue piercing than watch wrestlers embrace.

The five new sports will add 18 events and 474 athletes to a Games currently straining under the weight of 10,500 athletes and 306 events. An already expensive Games might become a vulgar extravagance when in fact, amidst the suffering on this planet, sport should pursue prudence.

In a UFC generation, do they watch Olympic boxing? Will they shut off Breaking Bad to watch badminton mixed doubles? Do they leap with joy for trampolining? And these days if anyone can name a single modern pentathlon champion they should consider themselves Olympic historians.

The Olympics are locked in the same struggle as any other sporting event: pertinence. They are the protectors of sport in a way and yet they also crave popularity. By including wrestling, canoeing, badminton and weightlifting, they give those sports valuable oxygen; by ignoring what the young prefer, they are risking irrelevance.

In the marketing report of the 2012 Games it states that the rights-holding broadcasters "broadcast approximately 100,000 hours of Olympic coverage across more than 500 television channels". In 2008, it was 61,700 hours. In Rio it had better be more. In Tokyo even higher. The modern motto of the Games, we know, is Faster, Higher, Stronger, Bigger.

But it is Bloated which is the real dilemma. The five new sports will add 18 events and 474 athletes to a Games currently straining under the weight of 10,500 athletes and 306 events. An already expensive Games might become a vulgar extravagance when in fact, amid the suffering on this planet, sport should pursue prudence.

The Olympics will never again be Athens 1896 when 14 nations and 241 athletes competed in 43 events, but it must strive for proportion. The best of the planet doesn't mean every athlete on the planet. So summon the skateboarders in 2020, but hoof out someone else. Call up karate but put another sport on notice. There are anyway only so many places, or channels, a fan can be at one time.

And one last thing: Before you get distracted by Rio and that Phelps dude, the term "rocker" has nothing to do with Mick Jagger. It's just the curve of the surfboard bottom from nose to tail. Ok, bro?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 07, 2016, with the headline 'Hunger for inclusiveness gives rise to Bloated Games'. Print Edition | Subscribe