Olympic cricket? It's a yes from the women
Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, once wrote that: "The only real Olympic hero is the individual adult male." No women's sports, or team sports, he suggested, should ever be included in an Olympiad.
One can only speculate as to how he might have responded to the latest Olympic saga: namely, the possible inclusion of cricket in the 2024 Games. This month, representatives from the ICC have met with the International Olympic Committee to discuss precisely this question. The meeting was given additional impetus by new ECB chairman Colin Graves' recent announcement that he is in favour of cricket joining the Olympics, with the full endorsement of the ECB board. It is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of this meeting - following which it was confirmed that the ICC will continue to explore ways to remove hurdles for the sport's inclusion in future Games - could have huge repercussions for cricket.
These will likely be felt nowhere more strongly than within the women's game. For while debate continues to rage about the appropriateness of cricket - a sport that is still dominated by a handful of ex-British colonies - having a place in the global Olympics, there is surely no question that it is women's cricket, above all, that would stand to benefit from its inclusion.
Why? Firstly, funding. As with men's Associate and Affiliate cricket, entry into the Olympics would mean a large increase in financial support from governments across the world in countries where the sport is still in its developing phase. While the ICC's Women in Cricket Strategy has spread the sport to countries where the game did not even exist ten years ago, from Afghanistan to Japan, it is still the case that women's cricket in these countries is vastly under-funded. And women's Associate cricket suffers doubly when compared to its male counterpart; even the best players do not (yet) have the option of heading abroad and being paid to play in T20 franchise leagues; professionalism is a distant dream. The boost in government grants, which Olympic participation would provide, not to mention the interest from potential sponsors, would be consequently even more significant.
A good example is China, which since 2008 has been identified both by the ICC and the Asian Cricket Council as one of the biggest new markets for cricket. And no subsection of that market has bigger potential than women. In many ways, in fact, Chinese women's cricket is more advanced than its male equivalent. While China has only had a national women's team since 2007, the Chinese Cricket Association has prioritised the women's game in recent years due to the perception that it will be easier for them to penetrate top-level ICC competitions. Last summer they played at Lord's against an MCC team; ex-England star and current MCC player Claire Taylor was reported as saying that China Women "have the potential to become one of the best sides in the world".
Tim Wigmore reported recently that in China, government spending on cricket would increase to between US$15 and $20 million a year if it became an Olympic sport. It is likely that a significant proportion of this would be directly put towards those who, as the Chinese might say, "hold up half the sky". As Wigmore puts it, government Olympics funding would mean "expansionism with someone else footing the bill".
For the women's game, which both governments and cricket boards have proven notoriously reluctant to invest in, it could transform the funding situation not just in Associate and Affiliate countries but in Full Member countries too. It was not so long ago, after all, that cricket's status as a non-Olympic sport could have meant a huge step backwards for the women's game in England. Between 1997 and 2008, the sport received Sport England lottery funding, meaning that players - still entirely amateur in all other respects - could receive reimbursement for gym and travel costs to support their cricket training. Yet in 2008, this money was removed, due to the decision to concentrate funds entirely on Olympic sports in the lead-up to London 2012.
Fortunately the ECB stepped up to the plate and picked up the costs itself; in fact, it went one step further and created Chance to Shine ambassador coaching contracts in conjunction with the Cricket Foundation charity, to allow players jobs within cricket that would give them the flexibility to train and play on a semi-professional basis. It enabled England to go on and win two World Cups in the space of just six months the following year. It could all have been very different.
In countries other than England, whose boards are not so generous with their distribution of funds to the women's game, this is a very real and present dilemma. Take New Zealand, whose elite contracted female players earn only US$12,000, with all still needing day jobs in order to make ends meet. High Performance Sport New Zealand, whose job it is to allocate funding for elite-level sport, concentrates almost all its finances on Olympic sports, in particular the ones at which the Kiwis have performed well at in recent Olympiads. The biggest rises in HPSNZ's current funding cycle, for example, went to rowing, cycling and sailing - in all of which New Zealand received gold and/or silver medals in 2012. Women's cricket could massively benefit from a bigger share in these spoils.
There is a second reason why Olympic inclusion would be a particular coup for women's cricket: the exposure it would provide for a sport that still struggles to gain media coverage and reasonable crowds in many countries around the world. In 2013 at the 50-over Women's World Cup in India, for example, the matches were played in largely empty stadiums (thanks partly to a poor publicity effort by the local organisers). As for TV coverage, that too often remains minimal; during the last Women's World T20 tournament in 2014, only the semi-finals and final were deemed worthy of broadcast. This should all clearly be cause for concern for the ICC.
It's hard to know the exact impact that inclusion in the Olympics might have in this regard, but we can look to the examples of other women's sports to gain some idea. Women's boxing, for example, is the most recent women's sport to have been added to the Olympics, with 2012 being the inaugural event. Since then, Sport England figures show that in the 2012 host nation, participation in boxing by women has increased by 79%; and Britain's Olympic champion, Nicole Adams, has spoken at length about the change in attitudes towards her sport. "I'm always getting tweets from girls saying they've taken up boxing because they've seen me win," she told the BBC.
Another important point of comparison is women's football. The growth of the sport since it was first included in the Olympics in 1996 has been phenomenal. It has become one of the world's fastest growing sports, with over 30 million women now participating globally. Of course there are many factors that have contributed to this, but inclusion in the Olympics has undoubtedly played a crucial role. The final of the 2012 competition at Wembley was watched by an 80,000-strong crowd - the kind of fan base that women's cricket would give its right arm for.
There are reports that the ICC is concerned that an Olympic tournament would diminish the worth of their own global tournaments. Yet it seems to me that in the women's game the inverse of this would prove the case. The more eyes you can get on the women's game, the more fans you can potentially create - fans who will continue to follow the sport long after the Olympics has ended. To again take the example of women's football: record numbers watched the women's football World Cup in 2015, with the final becoming the most watched football game ever in the United States. The success of women's football at the 2012 Olympics has, far from decreasing the value of the sport's other global competitions, actually done the opposite.
There are, of course, many questions that still need to be tackled regarding women's cricket's possible inclusion in the Olympics. Would the world's top players be involved? Presumably yes, ideally, but if so, would the women's event require different rules than the men's event (such as exists in Olympic football)? Is T20 the right format? If so, how many countries would be able to actually participate? Would there need to be a pre-qualifying tournament? This, of course, would impact the levels of exposure that developing countries could hope for.
Yet in spite of all these potential hurdles, it seems fairly obvious that inclusion in the Olympics could only advance the popularity and standard of women's cricket across the world. De Coubertin would be turning in his grave.
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. @RafNicholson