July 17, 2008

The Olympics can wait

Why pushing it onto the world's biggest sporting platform is hardly the best way to globalise cricket


Steve Waugh has been campaigning for cricket's inclusion in the Olympics based on his experience at the Commonwealth Games © Getty Images
 

Cricket at the Olympics: the idea certainly has a ring to it and makes for a good headline but is it really the best way to globalise the game?

First, I must confess to being a sceptic when it comes to the Olympic Games. I'm not quite in the category of the person who suggested the Olympic pool in Beijing had been deliberately built a couple of metres short (and hence the extraordinary number of world records), but a healthy sceptic nevertheless. Stories about IOC delegates accepting large payments for their votes, and charges of cheating by judges and officials tend to have that effect. And then there's the ever-present spectre of performances being enhanced by illegal substances.

However, there has been a strong call for cricket to be an Olympic sport by current players. Even those two former antagonists Steve Waugh and Sourav Ganguly have backed Adam Gilchrist's suggestion that the game make a push for inclusion in the 2020 games. So let's explore the pros and cons.

The main reason proffered is the globalisation of the game. This is a commendable aim but the question remains: "Can you create a market for cricket in places like the USA and China by playing at the Olympics, or do you first try to make the citizens of those countries more aware of the game so there is then a demand for it at Olympic level?"

Any cricket match involving either USA or China in the Olympics is unlikely to receive much television exposure in those countries, with all the competition for coverage among the major Olympic sports. The only reason for cricket to appear in the Olympic coverage in those countries would be if their team produced a major upset. Judging by the USA's lacklustre performance so far in top international cricket competitions, a nuclear-free world is more likely.

Perhaps a more realistic approach would be to expand the IPL model, with franchises in places like USA, Japan, China and Europe. That way, competitive matches are guaranteed in those countries and an opportunity is created for an increased audience for cricket on television in those regions. By taking this approach it would also accelerate the development of young homegrown players from those countries, who would eventually go on to play in a competitive national team. When that time arrives, it would be appropriate to start thinking about cricket as an Olympic sport.

In the past, when the USA had competed at the highest level, the bulk of the team was made up of older expats from cricket regions like the Caribbean or the subcontinent. They still had some skill but were way out of their depth when it came to running between wickets and fielding, two crucial aspects of the short versions of the game. Consequently, rather than the USA having a young team building toward a strong performance down the track, they were a bunch of individuals trying for one last hurrah - before the cycle repeated itself at the next tournament, four years later.

 
 
Can you create a market for cricket in places like the USA and China by playing at the Olympics, or do you first try to make the citizens of those countries more aware of the game so there is then a demand for it at Olympic level?
 

In proposing cricket as an Olympic sport, Waugh cited as a reason the incredibly good feeling he experienced while competing in the 1998 Commonwealth Games. That's a great personal memory but what did involvement in the Games do for cricket?

Though the 1998 Commonwealth Games involved all the major cricket-playing countries (the Caribbean was represented by individual nations), the sport was dropped from the next Games, which were held in Manchester, a major city in the country where the game was invented.

Playing at the Olympics would also create a major headache in regard to the international cricket schedule. With the proliferation of Twenty20 events in world cricket, the international itinerary is currently as cluttered as a mechanic's workshop. Rather than take on another major tournament, and the resulting qualifying event the Olympics would require, the ICC desperately needs to trim the current schedule so it resembles an orderly document rather than a parchment covered in Sanskrit scribble.

There's no doubt Twenty20 is the way to globalise the game, but that cause won't be helped if, as in all likelihood, only the eight major cricket nations qualify to play at the Olympics. Marching in an Olympic Games opening ceremony might give individual cricketers goosebumps, but as part of the evolution of the game, it wouldn't rate as a pimple on the backside.

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