In June, the International Olympic Committee executive board recommended a package of five sports for inclusion at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. It was a historic decision which, if approved this August, would represent ‘the most comprehensive evolution of the Olympic programme in modern history’.
By Michael Long and Tom Lloyd
Agenda 2020, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic movement, proposed significant changes to the way in which the Games – both summer and winter – are awarded, staged and formatted. Its drafting was hailed as a historic moment for the Olympic movement but for five sports in particular, it proved a veritable game-changer.
Last September the Tokyo 2020 Additional Event Programme Panel proposed that karate, skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing and baseball/softball should be added to the programme for its edition of the Games. The committee’s recommendation was permitted as part of the wide-ranging series of proposals outlined in Agenda 2020, which, among other things, called for the Olympic programme to be shaped by events rather than sports, and for host cities to be given a greater say in the organisational and financial planning of their Games.
Proposed as a single package, the five sports were selected from an original list of 26 that was then whittled down to a shortlist of eight. Together, they would add 18 events and 474 athletes to the Tokyo 2020 line-up, with none of the existing sports or athletes on the programme affected. Squash, bowling and wushu were the three to miss out.
In June, the IOC executive board released a statement publicly supporting Tokyo 2020’s recommendation. At the time, the board insisted the five new sports would ‘offer a key focus on youth, which is at the heart of the Games vision for Tokyo 2020’, noting how ‘they represent a combination of well-established and emerging sports with significant popularity in Japan and beyond, including team sports and individual sports; indoor sports and outdoor sports; and ‘urban’ sports with a strong appeal to youth’.
IOC members are now expected to rubber-stamp their inclusion at the 129th IOC Session in Rio de Janeiro in August, a move the IOC has said would represent ‘the most comprehensive evolution of the Olympic programme in modern history’. Ahead of the vote, SportsPro looks back at each sport’s Olympic journey to date and assesses what their inclusion at Tokyo 2020 might mean for them.
Proposed by: International Surfing Association (ISA)
Proposed format: 40 athletes, 20 from each gender. Contested on short boards.
Fernando Aguerre reacted to the news of surfing’s recommendation in the only way he knows how: “I celebrated by going surfing!”
The sport’s bid for an Olympic berth has been something of a personal mission for the charismatic Argentinian. As the long-serving president of the International Surfing Association (ISA), Aguerre has spearheaded the campaign for more than two decades, travelling far and wide to lobby decision-makers in Lausanne and around the world.
“Our relationship with the IOC and inclusion in the Olympic Games has been one of the strategic priorities for the ISA for many years and we were thrilled to move one step closer to realising our Olympic dream,” says Aguerre. “But we remain aware that the hard work must continue.”
Surfing has long ticked the ‘youth appeal’ box for the IOC, yet the sport has failed to convince the committee on five occasions since it made its first formal pitch ahead of Sydney 2000. Concerns over TV scheduling have been a persistent issue for a sport that relies on notoriously unpredictable ocean conditions, while surfing’s global appeal has often been called into question.
Agenda 2020, however, changed everything. The IOC’s new focus on youth and ‘urban’ sports undoubtedly strengthened surfing’s hand, with many now drawing parallels between the sport’s potential impact on the Summer Games and that of snowboarding’s successful addition to the winter programme at Nagano 1998.
“The [IOC] are clearly trying to engage new audiences around the world so it makes absolute sense to include sports that are globally popular in urban areas with huge youth appeal,” notes Aguerre. “The time is right for surfing and the progress we have made in terms of global growth and providing more access and greater opportunities for people to surf, highlights the sport’s reach.”
The ISA reached a symbolic milestone when it added the Iran Surfing Association as its 100th member in June. Now, Aguerre cites the sport’s “increased popularity in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the last decade” as proof of its global reach and insists being part of the Olympics will only accelerate its development.
“The Olympics can help us to spread further the core values of our sport and culture,” he says. “It can also provide more opportunities for young people globally through better access to equipment and facilities. Additionally, Olympic inclusion will generate increased visibility for all national surfing federations in front of their national governments and national Olympic committees who are often one of the primary funding sources for development of all Olympic sports.”
The recent emergence and proliferation of artificial wave pools has been heralded as a major advancement in surfing, opening the sport up to millions of potential new surfers who do not have access to the ocean, enabling greater scheduling certainty, and bringing about the ability to create spectator-friendly, arena-like environments in which to present competitions. Such a prospect will not have been overlooked by the IOC.
“Wave pool technology is real and remains very much on the surfing agenda,” Aguerre says. “As soon as it became clear that the technology was capable of creating replicable, high-performance waves, we become strong advocates for its implementation. We see this as an important part of the sport’s future. The IOC is well informed and briefed on the wave pool technology and we will continue to promote this technology as a viable and attractive platform for the sport’s development going forward.”
Despite the recent advancements in wave pool technology, the IOC has confirmed its intention to stage surfing events on natural waves at Tokyo 2020. Aguerre insists he is “very pleased” with this decision” – a decision, he says, that will bring “the unique style and culture of surfing to the Olympic Games” whilst creating “an amazing ‘beach party’ atmosphere”.
“Surfing is hugely popular in Japan and the country has hosted many national and international competitions in a number of beautiful surf spots,” he adds. “In fact, we are seeing a strong interest from a number of surf communities in Japan in hosting our ISA World Surfing Games.”
Proposed by: World Karate Federation (WKF)
Proposed format: Eight events – two in the Kata discipline, with 20 athletes across the men’s and women’s events, and six in the Kumite discipline, which would feature a total of 60 athletes, 30 in each gender.
Despite being a sport with ancient traditions, the first organised karate club in mainland Japan was opened as late as 1924. The sport of karate then spread outside Japanese shores after the United States military occupied the island of Okinawa during World War II, before becoming the set-piece of Hollywood’s martial arts craze during the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, it has grown exponentially.
During the IOC’s 121st session, hosted by Copenhagen in October 2009, karate was put forward for inclusion at this year’s Games in Rio. The session ultimately decided on rugby sevens and golf for the 2016 programme but, true to its sport, the World Karate Federation (WKF) came back fighting. Today the body’s president, Antonio Espinós, says karate’s recommendation is the culmination of years of hard work legitimising the sport.
“This puts us closer to our Olympic dream,” he says. “The recommendation is not accidental. In karate it’s important to be patient and take things as they come. That is what we have done, and for now, we can only do exactly that going forward.
“The inclusion would represent a historic moment for karate. We’re hoping to showcase the excellent and outstanding features of our sport.”
It will come as no surprise that from the moment Tokyo was announced as the host of 2020, the ancient martial art of karate, originally developed in the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, would be at the forefront of the debate. “Japan is the birthplace of our sport, so certainly karate is a perfect fit for Tokyo,” says Espinós. “Its popularity in Japan is evident.” But for Espinós, it is important the sport continues to grow beyond its traditional heartlands.
“As the most popular martial art discipline in the world, karate wants to continue establishing its dominant position through further extending among youngsters, and increasing the number of affiliates and commercial partners,” he adds. “We want to contribute to the Olympic movement through our visual and spectacular nature, and hope we can remain there.”
The WKF is planning to stage eight events at the Tokyo Games: across the Kata and Kumite disciplines, around 80 athletes, split equally by gender, are expected to compete. If approved, karate would join fellow martial arts judo and taekwondo on the Olympic programme.
Proposed by: World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC)
Proposed format: Two events – a men’s event comprising six teams and 144 athletes, and a women’s event comprising six teams and 90 athletes.
In the summer of 2005, it was announced that baseball and softball were to be excluded from the Olympic Games following Beijing 2008, in what was a crushing blow for both sports. The IOC reclassified the two as disciplines of the same sport, rather than their own entities, and in doing so claimed that for them to be considered for re-entry into the Games, they must do so jointly.
In 2012 the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) and the International Softball Federation (ISF) set about merging, and the following year saw the creation of the World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC). Riccardo Fraccari, a former baseball umpire and president of the IBAF, was installed to lead the unified body, which is now recognised by the IOC as the sole authority for both sports.
“It has been very important in our growth,” Fraccari says of the merger. “It allows us to make progress with one common approach to the sport worldwide. We should never be separate. When you want to talk to kids worldwide – and that is the best way to grow – you want to ensure that your approach is completely the same. It’s really important.”
Since the merger three years ago the WBSC has made sweeping structural and competition reforms in order to see both sports blossom, yet its bid for reinstatement has been far from straightforward. At its session in Buenos Aires in September 2013, the IOC voted against re-admitting the pair in favour of wrestling, which was handed a reprieve after itself being cut just months earlier. Though baseball and softball won marks for uniting to form a single body for what was their third bid to re-enter the Games, questions over baseball’s refusal to adhere to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code and the availability of professional players remained throughout their campaign.
The WBSC, however, has refused to give up the fight. Last year the body launched the WBSC Premier12, which is now baseball’s flagship international tournament. The inaugural event was largely held – not coincidentally – in Japan. Drawing around 90 million viewers, it was the most watched television event of the year in Asia and the Tokyo Dome, where the final rounds were held, saw attendances of over 40,000. The event also produced an estimated US$131 million in worldwide television advertising value and brand exposure for tournament sponsors and the WBSC.
“It was such an unexpected success,” reflects Fraccari. “It was really impressive. One of the most important things about it was that nations who weren’t involved wanted to be. To do that, they have to invest in sport and invest in youth.
“The Premier12 has made nations across the globe invest in the sport because they know they need to grow their infrastructure if they want to be involved. We’ve created a positive circle, that can only help to grow the sport. I think that the IOC watched, for sure. That would have been positive.”
According to Fraccari, the Premier12 served as the perfect platform on which to showcase Japan’s intimate and long-established passion for baseball. Samurai Japan, the country’s national team, are currently ranked number one in the world and took bronze at the event, but Fraccari believes it was the success of the tournament as a whole which truly demonstrated that baseball – a sport that enjoys considerable popularity in Asia, the Americas and, increasingly, Europe – will be a successful addition to the Tokyo 2020 programme.
“I think that for our performance at Tokyo to be successful, then it is not just because it is in Tokyo, but because it is attractive around the world,” he says. “It’s important we add global value where we can, so that we can then take it in to Europe or anywhere.”
In softball, too, significant progress has been made. For the first time ever, the WBSC live-streamed every game from its recent Women’s Softball World Championship in Canada – an event that was expanded to a record 31 nations from all five continents. Both the USA and Japan, the world’s two top-ranked nations, expanded their professional women’s softball leagues this year, while the WBSC has been eager to communicate that softball’s most prominent demographic is young girls under the age of 21.
There remain several key challenges. In particular, the IOC’s decision to cap the quota of new athletes to 500 has posed a problem for the WBSC. As it stands, only six baseball and softball teams would feature at Tokyo 2020, meaning many prominent nations would likely miss out. The WBSC may therefore look to cut squad sizes to allow for eight sides to enter.
There is also the more thorny issue of revenue distribution. It is understood that none of the five new sports will receive a cut of income generated from Tokyo 2020, which would leave the WBSC, whose sports are likely to garner significant interest and revenues, out of pocket. Discussions over the participation of Major League Baseball (MLB) players, meanwhile, are said to be ongoing, although no agreement has yet been reached.
Proposed by: International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC)
Proposed format: 40 athletes, 20 from each gender. Two events featuring bouldering, lead and speed combined categories.
Climbers have long operated on the fringes of the athletic world but times have changed since the sport was the sole reserve of drifters and beatniks. In early 2007 48 nations around the world combined to create the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), which now governs the competitive side of the sport globally, and since then sport climbing’s credibility and profile within the Olympic movement has enjoyed a rapid ascent.
“The Olympics have long been on the minds of the IFSC and the climbing community,” says IFSC spokesman Joseph Robinson, “and now we are approaching the final hold of our unbelievable climb.”
Having been formally recognised by the IOC in February 2010, the IFSC has grown to comprise 87 members across five continents and oversee a packed calendar of events covering the lead, bouldering and speed disciplines. Its flagship event, the IFSC Climbing World Championships, takes place every two years, while there will be 19 IFSC Climbing World Cup meetings in 2016 alone.
“Sport climbing has already seen significant growth around the world, especially with the expansion of the indoor climbing market,” said Robinson. “Our ambition is to continue to develop sport climbing on all five continents to allow young generations to participate in an exciting, affordable and healthy sport.”
Today, the IFSC says climbing walls are present in more than 140 countries, with 25 million climbers, a large portion of whom are under the age of 20, participating on a regular basis. In Japan in particular, climbing’s popularity has soared in recent years; from 2008 to 2015, the number of indoor climbing gyms has grown from 96 to 435, while there are said to be 500,000 regular climbers within the country.
As climbing’s bid for Olympic inclusion has gathered pace, booming interest in outdoor recreational pursuits and the ever-growing popularity of adventure sports has helped to raise the profile of elite climbers, many of whom now work professionally thanks to the attendant increase in exposure and sponsorship. The IFSC’s chief focus now is on communicating the overall health of the sport to the IOC executive ahead of August’s vote in Rio.
“The IFSC will continue to work with our devoted partners, athletes and national federations to host state of the art international competitions and to promote sport climbing as best as possible so that it is recognised as a major sport,” says Johnson.
“We are initiating a social media campaign to grow and provide an avenue of expression for support from the many sport climbing fans worldwide who wish to see sport climbing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Our hope is that the IOC will take this support into consideration when voting.”
Proposed by: International Federation for Roller Sports (FIRS)
Proposed format: 40 athletes, 20 from each gender. Contest split across four events, with men and women competing in the street and park disciplines.
Roller sports was one of five candidates that fell agonisingly short of Olympic inclusion in 2009, and was also one of eight sports overlooked for inclusion when wrestling was farcically reinstated in 2013 having been dropped by the IOC earlier that year. After both disappointments, it was a case of back to the drawing board for the Fédération Internationale de Roller Sports (FIRS).
As the FIRS regrouped to consider its options, Tokyo 2020’s invitation to pitch in late 2014 came somewhat out of the blue. Agenda 2020 had presented an entirely new opportunity and the FIRS responded by proposing only skateboarding, one of the many disciplines that fall under its remit and by far the most popular roller sport on the planet, for inclusion at the 2020 Games. Thankfully for the federation, the decision paid off.
“When FIRS received the invitation from the organising committee of Tokyo 2020, we knew the path wouldn’t be easy, so we decided to invest all our energies to present events that may resonate with Tokyo and Japan,” FIRS president Sabatino Aracu tells SportsPro in an email interview. “Today we’re glad to see the suggestions presented are aligned with the executive board’s plans and we can’t wait to begin this amazing journey.”
Like surfing, skateboarding satisfies the IOC’s coveted youth and ‘urban’ criteria but, like surfing, there remains vocal opposition to its inclusion in the Olympics, particularly among those purists within the sport eager to protect and preserve its rebellious, counterculture identity. An online petition demanding that skateboarding not be included in the 2020 Games has over 6,500 signatures from those who believe skateboarding is an art and a lifestyle, not a competitive sport in the Olympic mould. Yet to characterise the sport as anything but would be off the mark.
Even without a place in the Olympics, skateboarding has grown into a multi-billion dollar business, fronted by megastar-cum-boardroom entrepreneurs like Tony Hawk and replete with for-profit international competitions like ESPN’s X Games and the Nike SB-backed Street League Skateboarding. It is a world of big multinational brands and signature shoe and fashion lines, one in which the notion of athlete as endorser is by now well established.
While the FIRS oversees the Olympic-facing, grassroots side of the sport and organises international championships its own, it knows it must be cognisant of the far-reaching culture and powerful industry behind it.
“IOC and FIRS share the same willingness to keep the athletes and the sport at the centre of any decision and Tokyo 2020 won’t make an exception to these rules,” says Aracu. “The interests around skateboarding are many and it will be crucial to involve the stakeholders the proper way, but it is also important to remind that skateboarding has been able to reach the popularity it has thanks to all the players around it.
“The scope of FIRS is to guarantee that all these players will have the role they deserve and to support them on the development of their activities and an efficient joint strategy will be crucial.”
There remains some confusion as to which skateboarding body would have responsibility for organising Olympic skateboarding competitions. Since Tokyo 2020’s recommendation last September, two other bodies – the International Skateboarding Federation (ISF) and the World Skateboarding Federation (WSF) – have both staked their claim to oversee the events. As it stands, however, only the FIRS is officially recognised by the IOC as the sport’s worldwide governing body.
“The most important goal for FIRS is to create the right conditions to sustain the sport on the best way possible during this very delicate phase,” admits Aracu. “‘Skateboarding being run by skateboarders’ is a pillar of our working model and we’re convinced that a very experienced and efficient team is now gathered and, together, we will be able to guarantee that the next four years will be smooth and flawless.
“Agenda 2020 makes very clear that the inclusion of skateboarding is temporary and related to the 2020 Games. However, our efforts during the next four years will also focus on creating a long-lasting legacy for the future Games. We’ve brainstormed a lot with the IOC during the last years how we can support the consolidation of the new vision of the Games. We do believe that skateboarding will fulfil the main objectives of youth participation and broadcaster’s involvement, and we are ready to invest everything we can to succeed on this journey.”
Like sport climbing, skateboarding enjoyed a successful showcase at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing in 2014. If included at Tokyo 2020, it would feature 40 athletes – 20 male and 20 female – competing across four events in the street and park disciplines.