IOC eyes youth in bid to continue to stay afloat

With 60 per cent of the 35 million surfers worldwide under 20 years of age, including the sport in the Tokyo Games will go down well.
With 60 per cent of the 35 million surfers worldwide under 20 years of age, including the sport in the Tokyo Games will go down well. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEWBURYPORT (Massachusetts) • In the attempt to remain relevant to the next generation, the Olympics are becoming a less exclusive club.

More sports were proposed last week for inclusion in the Summer Games in Tokyo in 2020: baseball, softball, karate, surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing.

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) powerful executive board, which includes president Thomas Bach, must approve that list in December before the sports are put to a final vote next year, prior to the start of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But make no mistake: The odds are greatly in favour of all the candidates making the cut for 2020.

What the IOC leadership wanted most was a credible youth movement, even at the risk of overloading a Summer Olympic programme already creaking under the combined load of traditional mainstays, global juggernauts, niche diversions and downright oddities.

This was no unilateral proposal from the Tokyo organising committee. Instead, it came after much consultation with the IOC leadership.

What the Tokyo organisers surely wanted most were sports like baseball, softball and karate, all of which have deep roots in Japanese culture and are pursuits where the Japanese can contend for medals.

What the IOC leadership wanted most, however, was a credible youth movement, even at the risk of overloading a Summer Olympic programme.

Already, the programme is creaking under the combined load of traditional mainstays (track and field, swimming and gymnastics), global juggernauts (football and basketball), niche diversions (trampoline, and fencing) and downright oddities (modern pentathlon).

The package of rule changes, dubbed Agenda 2020 that was passed last year, created the possibility of a more flexible Olympic programme. And the announcement proves Bach meant exactly what he advocated.

Adding just surfing or sport climbing or skateboarding would have created a novelty ripple, like adding BMX racing in 2008.

Adding all three at one time risks going over the top, but it sends a much stronger message and is certainly more bold and generation-shifting than simply reinstating baseball and softball - dropped after the 2008 Games - and adding yet another martial art in karate.

"This is really a very clever decision," noted Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association (ISA).

"There is the ultimate sport for young people on the beach and the ocean, which is surfing.

"There's the ultimate urban youth sport which is skateboarding. And there's, right now, the coolest, fastest-exploding outdoor sport, which is sport climbing, so they've the beach culture covered, the urban culture covered and the outdoor culture covered."

ISA research estimates that there are about 35 million surfers worldwide (two million in Japan), with 60 per cent of them under the age of 20. Research received by the IOC also estimates that skateboarding has more than 50 million participants globally, with a large majority under 18.

Until now, the Winter Games have been quicker to cater to youthful tastes, adding snowboarding in 1998 and more recently slopestyle.

But the Summer Games are already bursting at the seams, and what is missing so far are cuts.

Adding sports to the Olympics is a much less emotional process than removing them, as made clear by the uproar generated by wrestling's banishment from the Rio Games and the successful drive to reinstate it.

There are already 28 sports inside the rings, including two new arrivals, rugby sevens and golf, for Rio in 2016. But there is no serious suggestion for now of tossing anybody out of the club for 2020 to make room for the next wave.

Instead, the IOC plans to allow a maximum of 500 athletes from the five new sports in 2020. That will come on top of its cap for existing sports of approximately 10,500.

The new sports would add 18 extra events. "We learnt very much late in the process that they had created this cap of 500 athletes," said Robert Fasulo, who is advising Aguerre.

"For me, a very clear part of the IOC strategy was to avoid a big fight with the existing federations."

This seems an untenable long-term strategy if the Olympics are to remain manageable. But, at least for 2020, this inclusive strategy should keep the stakeholders happy, even if it will only make it harder to command the spotlight with 33 sports and well over 300 medal events packed into 17 days.

The new candidates are certainly not the ones complaining about overcrowding in the marketplace.

In the last 10 years, sport climbing - contested on artificial rock walls indoors or outdoors - has grown exponentially.

It now has an estimated six million registered participants worldwide and another 25 million unregistered, with climbing walls in more than 140 countries.

At MetroRock North, a climbing gym in Newburyport just over 60km north of Boston, general manager Bryan Rafferty has seen engagement levels soar in his five years in his post.

But he is convinced Olympic status could take climbing to another level - both for those in the industry and for those trying and generally failing to make a living as professional climbers.

"They are some of the most talented and incredible athletes on the planet," Rafferty said.

"Physically, what they do is insane and most of them are still scraping by on next to nothing."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2015, with the headline 'IOC eyes youth in bid to continue to stay afloat'. Print Edition | Subscribe