March 2, 2013

Does cricket have a place in the Olympics?

Tim Wigmore
There's plenty to be gained, but there's the knotty problem of feasibility

Kevin Pietersen's buccaneering 149 against South Africa last summer would normally have dominated sporting news. Instead the clash with 'Super Saturday' left cricket the ghost at Britain's Olympics feast.

Perhaps no longer. On Wednesday the MCC World Cricket Committee recommended that cricket apply to join the Olympics. Declaring itself "impressed with the potential boost for the game worldwide if cricket were to be included", the committee advocated rekindling a relationship that is currently limited to a solitary Great Britain-France match in 1900.

Golf provides a revealing case study: after a 112-year absence from the Olympics, it will return in 2016. An International Golf Federation spokesman says the move "will lead to governments devoting greater resources to developing golf and more support from national Olympic committees and golf federations. This will, in turn, accelerate the growth of the game."

It is a view apparently not shared by the ICC. Having already declined to apply to participate in the 2016 and 2020 Games, cricket cannot appear until 2024, which would necessitate making an application in 2017 or earlier. Commenting on the possibility, an ICC spokesman says: "The ICC board will review the advantages and disadvantages of participation and make a decision on whether or not to seek inclusion."

Would it be worth it? Olympic participation would provide copious extra exposure; when handball or curling sells out at the Olympics, it is not because they have hordes of fans. It is because it is the Olympics: people want to watch.

Sports receive significant extra funding through Olympic participation. In the Netherlands, for example, government funding for cricket was reduced last year on direct account of the sport not being included in the Olympics. As Netherlands Cricket CEO Richard Cox says, while cricket "lacks Olympic participation it has become increasingly difficult for us to promote the game and to secure the High Performance funding required domestically to develop the sport". Were cricket to feature in the Games, it would spur governments of developing cricketing nations to take a more active role in developing the sport. To Cricket Ireland CEO Warren Deutrom, Olympics inclusion is "a no-brainer financially from an associate and affiliate perspective".

Cricket has long dreamt of "conquering" America, without making any discernible progress. Darren Beazley, CEO of the United States Cricket Association, says cricket needs a catalyst to boost its image and to capture the imagination of the general public in the US. "What better vehicle than the Olympic Games? For cricket to be part of the Olympic movement would be a huge benefit for the development and profile of the sport in the US." And the same could be true of cricket in China, where cricket gained considerable attention during the country's run to the quarter-finals at the 2010 Asian Games.

Olympic participation would help the number of competitive cricketing nations increase. Especially with the reduction in both the World Cup and World Twenty20 events to ten teams each, cricket in the non-Test world needs nurturing. Inclusion in the Olympics would give "a different status to the sport" according to Cricket Scotland CEO Roddy Smith.

Free-to-air coverage of cricket is rare outside Test nations (and non-existent in England) and would be a welcome by-product of cricket returning to the Olympics.

Predictably, though, it's not as simple as that; even more predictably, money is the main reason why. Even while recommending that cricket apply to join the Olympics, the MCC World Cricket Committee conceded that it could initially lead to a shortfall in funds available to ICC members.

The crux of the problem relates to the World Twenty20. With both the Olympics and World Twenty20 taking place in even years, Olympic cricket could cannibalise the ICC's product. As Deutrom explains, "The feeling is: to have two major T20 events in a year simply wouldn't fly", which means that the World Twenty20 would either have to move to odd years or only be played every four years. So the key question - and one to which Deutrom doesn't claim to have a definitive answer - is: would revenue and all the collateral benefits of being in the Olympics actually make up for that significant financial shortfall?

Olympic cricket wouldn't quite be a replica of the World Twenty20. Most noticeably, the teams would be different - West Indies' constituent members would have to play as separate nations. Yet this could be an intriguing spectacle - the success of Trinidad & Tobago has enriched the Champions League - and could provide for an open tournament with 16 competitive nations highlighting the diversity of cricket.

The prospect of winning a gold medal would provide players with ample motivation. And, as long as a suitable gap was created in the international calendar, the standard would suffer little in comparison to the World Twenty20.

The women's game would particularly gain from inclusion. Beazley argues that Olympic participation would provide "opportunities for our talented women to rapidly progress, compete on the world stage and would help USACA to differentiate the sport from more 'mainstream American' sports, illustrating cricket as a sport where both genders can participate and excel". When women's sports have featured in multi-sport events it has contributed to greater investment and exposure. Similarly, an MCC spokesman said the committee was enthused about the potential for disability cricket if cricket featured in the Olympics.

Similar benefits - albeit on a much lower scale - would apply to cricket appearing in the Commonwealth Games. Smith stresses that Scottish cricket would gain from Commonwealth inclusion, highlighting the potential for increased funding from Scottish bodies.

There was considerable discussion over the prospect of cricket appearing in the 2018 Games in Australia, but the idea has now been scrapped. While the Commonwealth Games Federation wanted the representative sides to comprise the "best available" players (even with the tacit acceptance that this might not be the case in practice), the ICC was only willing to sanction an Under-23 competition, on the presumed grounds that "best available" teams could devalue the broadcasting rights to the World Twenty20 in the same year. The ICC's demands were not acceptable to the Commonwealth Games Federation, although there is a strong possibility that cricket will appear in the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Games.

Of course, it is Olympic participation that would make the real difference. As with any bold idea, it is easy to attack. But the MCC committee has recognised the merits of Olympic inclusion. The International Olympic Committee has also said it would welcome an application from one of the world's most-followed sports. So the possibility of cricket being in the Olympics hinges on whether the ICC can recognise the good it could do the game.

If cricket truly wants to expand beyond its cosy Commonwealth club, nothing would be more significant than Olympic participation. Providing the ICC's vision matches the MCC's, James Pattinson could yet be bowling to Joe Root in the 2024 Games.