November 23, 2015

Olympic cricket? It's a yes from the women

The women's game will gain hugely, in funding and exposure, if its played in the quadrennial global event
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The game will get a big boost in China if it's an Olympic sport © Getty Images

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.

England women's cricket lost its lottery funding in 2008 when Sport England decided to support only Olympic sports © Getty Images

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.

The football women's World Cup final between the USA and Japan this year had enviable viewership numbers compared to its cricket counterpart © Getty Images

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.

Participation numbers will only grow if cricket becomes a globally recognised sport and not one that is played by a handful of former British colonies © Getty Images

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  •   Mohammad Ahsan Jaffar on November 28, 2015, 16:58 GMT

    T20 under 19 cricket should be taken to Olympics and 24 nations should take part with so much attention it could be played on a rugby ground

  • sudeep on November 26, 2015, 13:05 GMT

    JAMESPCRICK, in T20 athleticism cannot be ignored any more as fielding is crucial in this format. Cricket in Olympics has to be in T20 format to have any appeal to a global audience. A sport has to be lucrative for more athletes to come in as I mentioned in my earlier post - "....lack of support - financially and technologically as well as culturally". The cultural issue of women taking to sports is absolutely vital in most cricketing nations.

  • James on November 24, 2015, 20:37 GMT

    Johnthekiwi: "If it (women's cricket) had to stand on its own without subsidies it would disappear".

    "Most women's sports that have a male variant are unwatchable by comparison"

    The first statement only applies to playing at higher (i.e. International) level under the current system, and the second is your opinion. The real question is whether enough people disagree with you to make the sort of money which will allow for players to either i) cover their costs or even ii) earn a wage from sponsorship deals etc. Raf would argue that they do, whilst I am not so confident. Whatever the case, women's cricket doesn't need to have subsidies to merely exist. There will always be people willing to help out for free, and women wanting to play at a local club even if they pay for their own gear. This has been the case up until recently and remains so even now, below the international level. Then it just becomes a question of whether you deem that situation to be acceptable in the long term.

  • James on November 24, 2015, 20:27 GMT

    Fairfan: It is hardly surprising that athleticism is not a major attribute of most female cricketers - this is simply because it doesn't have to be. Whilst some are more athletic than others, players generally get the results they need to move up from club/county/country i.e. scoring runs and taking wickets, by practising those things. The easiest way to improve your game is to improve technique in batting, bowling, fielding. Most players are not full time and those that are, are new to it. I regard it as a strength of the sport of cricket that a lack of athleticism can be compensated for, for example by experience or determination. Sports like tennis are missing this level of nuance. It is only when the game can offer a lucrative career path (which I doubt it ever really will) that we will start to see more athletes take up cricket, rather than those other sports they can get more success and/or money from.

  • Clifford on November 24, 2015, 15:26 GMT

    Yes if Cricket were an Olympic sport more money would go to it in many countries because of gov't funding and Cricket could be a women's only sport in the Olympics if that's the way the ICC/IOC decided to go and the Olympics are always looking to increase female competitors and a women's team sport would be good for that aim... But for a T20 competition among say 16 teams how many grounds would you need? And unlike football for example cricket cannot be played in the rain so could have scheduling issues. And the preparation of a cricket pitch is a specialised skill. If it did get inclusion and didn't take off I think cricket would then go the way of (women's) softball and (men's) baseball both of which are played in more countries than cricket.

  • sudeep on November 24, 2015, 14:45 GMT

    Raf, good example of FIFA WWC2015 held in Canada this summer. What a final that was - what a performance by Carli Lloyd!!! The athleticism, strength and stamina on display in that tournament, specially by the US women, was mind blowing for a neutral observer like me. And this is my problem with women's cricket. Barring few players from Australia, England and New Zealand the rest are not athletic enough to attract huge crowds. Having watched almost all matches of the ICC WWC2013 here in India, athleticism was something that I missed in those games. Sadly our women cricketers were well short of international standards in terms of physicality, in spite of us having the richest cricket board. Simply because of lack of support - financially and technologically as well as culturally. I am all for women's cricket to become an Olympic sports. But will it be financially viable? Will the gold medal match attract a TV audience of 27 million from the participating nations?

  •   Simon Woods on November 24, 2015, 14:23 GMT

    Some interesting points but de Coubertin did live to see both women's competition and indeed team sports included in the Olympic Games as he died in 1937 so I believe he wasn't really a philistine but a product of his era who did adapt to changing times over the 40 years he lived after he resurrected the Olympic Games. As to whether cricket should be an Olympic sport... hmmm... the cost involved of producing suitable facilities if the 2024 Games were to be held in a non-traditional cricketing venue could be a major stumbling block. Although London 2012 was pretty cost effective, even somewhere near cost neutral, there is a danger of the Olympic Games becoming too large from a logistical point of view and so many excellent sports are vying for Olympic inclusion. Rugby sevens makes its debut in Rio 2016 and this is both a reflection of and a spur to growing popularity and if the ICC got its act together like World Rugby have then cricket could be a worthy contender for Olympic inclusion.

  • D on November 24, 2015, 3:52 GMT

    Raf, it's criminal that the ICC currently runs women's cricket as well. If only there was a way for a breakaway women's cricket organisation to sign up with the Olympics (and ICC be damned). The world would totally watch, funding would be ample, and really the men would be left ruing a massively missed opportunity.

  •   James Mark on November 24, 2015, 3:05 GMT

    All future Olympics should be hosted by India only.