June 27, 2014

A case for Olympic status and wooing China

England and India may not be interested in making cricket truly global, but several other countries would vastly benefit from participating in the Olympics

A game associated with the British Empire might not seem like an easy fit in China. But the three-month tours of New Zealand recently undertaken by men's and women's sides from Shandong Province, at the cost of US$200,000 to the local government, suggest that is changing. So does the regular presence of national team fixtures on CCTV1, China's leading television station. Here, and in other unlikely outposts, the sport's global pretensions are increasingly hard to mock.

The tale of rugby offers a snapshot of what can be gained by inclusion in the Olympic Games. After a 96-year wait it will return, in the form of rugby sevens, to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. The International Rugby Board attribute inclusion in the Olympics to "an uplift in participation and Member Unions in countries as diverse as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Brazil and Russia" and "bringing significant additional funding to the game".

The cricketing fraternity is taking note. A survey conducted in 2008 found that 90% of the ICC's members supported the notion of including cricket in the Olympic Games. The MCC World Cricket Committee has also come out in favour of taking up the International Olympic Committee's encouragement to apply for inclusion in the 2024 Olympics, declaring itself "impressed with the potential boost for the game worldwide if cricket were to be included" last year.

China is one of those who could benefit. "We fully support cricket entering the Olympics," says Terry Zhang of the Chinese Cricket Association. "The shortcut for cricket to develop in China is to be in the Olympics."

There has been long been fantastical talk of cricket conquering China, but there appears no danger of it doing so anytime soon. "There is very little awareness in China and very little support from central government," Zhang admits. China remains "almost fully dependent on ICC and ACC funding for cricket development". And the sums on which cricket in China must subsist amount to a pittance: $30,000 a year from the ICC; and around $200,000 a year from the Asian Cricket Council.

Olympic status offers the tantalising prospect of that changing - and how. Based on the experience of rugby, Zhang believes that cricket would receive an injection of "millions of dollars" in China if it were included in the Olympics: perhaps as much as $20 million a year in total from central and local government.

Nothing would focus Chinese minds on the game like the prospect, however remote, of an Olympic medal in the sport: this resonates in a way that the chance of qualifying for a World Cup or World T20 never could.

"There are so many similarities between rugby and cricket in China," Zhang says. He looks at the "publicity and media exposure" that rugby is gaining, despite the sport's lack of history in the country, and believes "the same could happen for cricket" if it gained Olympic status. Without it, it is hard to see how cricket could make it big in China. "They only go for Olympic sports," Animul Islam, the former Bangladesh captain who is now coaching in China, said earlier this year.

One CEO of a lowly Affiliate member, which will receive a total of $10,000 from the ICC in 2014, believes that Olympic status would lead to an influx of $1 million a year from the national government

But the benefits of Olympic inclusion would extend far beyond China. As a report presented to the ICC executive board last year noted, the "positive impact may even stretch to some of the Full Members", noting a Cricket Australia study suggesting Olympic status "would increase cricket's 'share of voice' in the sports media".

Fears that a T20 tournament in the Olympics would reduce the cricketing and commercial value of the World T20 should also be discounted. The report notes: "The evidence from other sports seems to be that a balanced schedule such as this can lead to the Olympic Games helping to enhance the value of world championship events rather than cannibalising the federation's own competitions."

The financial case for inclusion is formidable, with the report identifying the benefits, including funding from the IOC of $15-20 million every Olympic Games; a "conservative projection" of Olympic Solidarity funding totalling $4-6 million per year; and increased "general profile of cricket in Associate and Affiliate member countries". One CEO of a lowly Affiliate member, which will receive a total of $10,000 from the ICC in 2014, believes that Olympic status would lead to an influx of $1 million a year from the national government.

And the tantalising prospect of cricket taking hold in the United States may cease to be a fantasy. Unusually, the US does not provide funding for Olympic sports, but Olympic status would provide a boon for cricket in America. "Having an Olympic team would greatly enhance not only our ability to fund-raise and to find sponsors, but also the sport's profile among Americans not yet familiar with it," Jamie Harrison, the chief executive officer of the American Cricket Federation, says.

For a sport that is the world's second-most popular, cricket is too often comfortable retreating into insularity. Olympic status would change that, providing ample exposure and thrusting cricket onto TV screens throughout the world. Even fans in England would enjoy the novelty of seeing the international side (albeit under the guise of Great Britain) on free-to-air TV: a modest step towards weaning the game away from its dependence upon those who learned their cricket abroad and at private schools.

And the benefits would extend far beyond the men's game. "Cricket's inclusion in the Olympic Games would serve to give support to the women's game, which is desperately in need of help right now," Harrison says. The female competition would be played out parallel to the men's one at the Olympics. "It would also open the door for the disabled to participate in the Paralympic Games, the importance of which I think cannot be overstated for these athletes."

If it sounds too good to be true, that's because it is. Although Olympic status is championed by virtually all the countries that play cricket, the notion of equality between members has long been anathema to the ICC - more so than ever in the aftermath of the coup by the "Big Three". Unsurprisingly, it is England and India who are leading the opposition to cricket being included in the Olympics.

Superficially, the ECB's rationale is simple. A report presented to the ICC executive board last year argued that the Olympics could cost the ECB $160 million.

This claim collapses under basic scrutiny. The suggestion that a T20 tournament in the Olympics would jeopardise an entire four-Test series, on which the figure of $160 million is based, is incredible. Last year, the ECB hosted the Champions Trophy while still finding enough room for a full Test and ODI schedule; at 18 days, the Champions Trophy lasted about a week longer than a cricket event at the Olympics would. Once the point is accepted, the "opportunity cost" to the ECB - which includes "$30 million of reduced income in other years due to the need to schedule additional matches outside London to help sustain other venues" - collapses.

Olympic status would transform not just the amount of money that Associate and Affiliate nations have but also who provided it. This is not a moot point: the ICC's handout of $30,000 a year to Affiliate members would seem an irrelevance set against the influx of government funding and sponsorship that the Olympics could provide.

The upshot would be that the financial dependence of Affiliates and Associates on England and India would be weakened. They might be rather less acquiescent to their demands in the future, and be less meek at the spectacle of N Srinivasan - a man suspended from the BCCI by the Supreme Court of India on corruption charges - being installed as chairman of the ICC. The overwhelming financial dominance of India would also recede if cricket grew in America, China and elsewhere. Though that would mean more money for everyone in the long run, the Big Three would not take kindly to having their control of the running of the game reduced.

At the ongoing ICC annual conference, Giles Clarke and Srinivasan have made efforts to woo the Associates and Affiliates, convincing them of their altruistic ambitions for growing the sport throughout the world. But their unyielding opposition to cricket appearing in the Olympics suggests men who prioritise self-interest over expanding the sport and the advancement of women's and disability cricket.