December 22, 2007

Cricket's distant Olympic dream

IOC recognition is only the first step on cricket's long road to appearing in the Olympics

Lord's will stage the Olympic archery tournament at the 2012 Games ... but that could be as close as cricket gets to Olympic participation for a long time © Getty Images

Last week's announcement by the ICC that cricket had been recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prompted a swathe of comments about how the sport was poised for a return to the Games for the first time since it's only previous appearance in 1900. Those predictions are, however, premature. The reality is not so straightforward.

The ICC set about applying for IOC recognition six years ago, the main purpose being to facilitate applications for local grants by its members. In many countries Olympic sports get priority where receipt of central funding is concerned.

In July 2006 the ICC signed up to the World Anti-Doping Agency's code, a mandatory requirement of the IOC, clearing the way for last week's announcement. But recognition is one of the first steps on a long road to cricket appearing at the Games.

"It's not as straightforward as people might think," an ICC spokesman told Cricinfo, "and there's lots to be done. But we are happy for there to be debate and we encourage it."

Comments from Ray Mali, the ICC's interim chairman, were carefully couched. "Cricket last featured in the Olympic Games in 1900. Maybe one day it will be right for cricket to return to the Olympic programme."

Mali's caution is well judged. The Olympic movement plans a long way in advance and is very precious about which sports it embraces. At present there are 28 and several others are pressing hard to be allowed to join the party, most notably rugby union and golf, at the same time as the IOC actually looks to reduce the number to 26 and to replace others. The prestige and commercial knock-ons for a sport included in the Games proper is massive.

The ICC has some hurdles to clear before it can even consider pushing cricket's claims. The IOC wants to see strength in the game's men's and women's divisions and, to date, the ICC, which only merged with the International Women's Cricket Council in 2006, has not staged a major women's tournament. However, it hosts the World Cup in 2008 and there is talk of a women's Twenty20 tournament running parallel with the ICC World Twenty20 Championship the following year.

Cricket also needs to press for regional recognition in major championships. While it has featured in the Commonwealth Games, it has no presence in the influential Pan-American and Pan-African Games.

On the plus side, the sudden emergence of Twenty20 offers a format tailor-made for television and so the Olympics, prompting IOC boss Jacques Rogge to praise cricket as a "TV friendly sport".

And the way that the Stanford 20/20 has included much smaller island entities as opposed to a combined West Indies side shows that the unique problems poised by countries, however small, participating in their own right in the Olympics can be overcome. Asking England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to merge into a Great Britain side might be a thornier issue.

If the long-term bonus is that the game is one day included in the Games themselves, then that will be fantastic. But if and when it does, all current cricketers will have been long-since retired and quite possibly so will their children
In October 2009 the IOC will meet to decide the host city for the 2016 Games as well as the sports to be played there. The ICC also celebrates its centenary in 2009 and that appears to be a watershed year if it is serious about inclusion in the Olympics. If several events go well between now and then it is possible the ICC will reconsider its strategic plan.

If it does, then it has four years to press forward its claims. The decisions as to where the 2020 Games will be held and what sports will be played are to be made in 2013. The word is that Delhi will be one of the frontrunners and it seems logical that if India hosts then its de-facto national sport should have a role.

But the Olympic movement is as flexible as an oil tanker and is subject to endless behind-the-scenes manoeuvring. Not only will the ICC have to get cricket's public house in order, it will also need to work hard off stage. Change in the Olympian world is slow and even if the ICC launches a lobbying offensive, 2020 could just be too soon.

For now, the ICC has served its members well by obtaining IOC recognition, and that was its only short-term aim. If the long-term bonus is that the game is one day included in the Games themselves, then that will be fantastic. But if and when it does, all current cricketers will have been long-since retired and quite possibly so will their children.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo