By Matthew Syed, republished from Times Sport.
Squash is a hair’s breadth from stepping out of the shadows. The sport, with its brutal ballet of lunging and leaping in a space as claustrophobic, in its way, as a red telephone box, has once again applied to the International Olympic Committee for a place on the coveted Olympic programme. It has been turned down twice before. But this time, it is quietly confident.
The whimsicality of the IOC should never be underestimated, but even the suits in Lausanne will surely not miss this latest opportunity to invite one of sport’s best-kept secrets into its midst. This is a game that has it all: athleticism, history, narrative, and global reach. It even has umpiring controversies aplenty, not least when a ruling has to be made as to whether a player has collided with his opponent out of malice or mishap.
The authorities have done everything to take the game into the modern age. They have spiced up the live coverage and the television production. They have created a video review system, rather like tennis, that has added to the unfolding drama. And they can boast some of the fittest and most personable players in the sporting firmament.
So, what more does the IOC want? And why on earth has it turned down squash so often, and so summarily, in the past?
In some parallel universe, Nick Matthew would be one of Britain’s most storied athletes. The world No 1 for much of the past three years, he plays squash in the classic style: absorbing the aggression of his opponent, soaking up the intensity, dancing around the back of the court while carefully gauging the growing exhaustion of his quarry. He is like a leopard, destroying his prey through stamina rather than speed.
Matthew’s defeat of Peter Barker in the group stages of the ATCO World Series at Queen’s Club, West London, on Friday was a classic of its kind. Matthew, as so often, looked to be outmatched in the opening exchanges. His left-handed opponent dominated the T and sent Matthew in a spiral around the court. But this is the illusion in which the player from Sheffield specialises. As the match went on, and the audience gasped at the growing intensity of the rallies, Matthew turned the screw. By the end, Barker was spent.
“I like to rely on my fitness and speed around the court,” said Matthew, who went on to lose in the final against Amr Shabana, of Egypt, yesterday. (Britain’s Laura Massaro lost to Nicol David of Malaysia in the women’s final.) “I have introduced more touch and flair into my repertoire, but when I am put under pressure, I tend to rely on my core strengths. I have spent years building my all-round endurance with interval sprints and tough circuits. It gives me an edge.”
But Matthew, one of the supreme athletic specimens in British sport, has not gained even the tiniest foothold in the nation’s consciousness. Television appearances are infrequent. Money is, relative to his colleagues in higherprofile sports, almost non-existent. Newspaper articles, rather like this one, tend to dwell on the injustice of him eking out an existence in the shadows. It is vexing, but Matthew knows that the world would change in the instant the IOC waved its magic wand.
“Olympic status is everything,” he said. “We have known for a long time that we are really missing out, but with the Games in London, it really rammed it down our throats. “It was not just the amazing coverage and the way the nation rallied around sport. It was also the legacy issues. Other sports, such as water polo, have seen a surge in the number of people taking them up. It would have been fantastic for squash to have received a similar boost.”
Olympic status has a particular allure for this country, because this is a sport in which Britain dominates. James Willstrop, from Yorkshire, who somehow manages to play squash with a hint of langour, is the current world No 2. Had Olympic status been granted in 2005, he, Matthew and Barker would now be a part of the golden generation of world-beating British Olympians. But still they wait.
“It is tough for the players,” Andrew Shelley, the chief executive of World Squash, said. “But all we can do is put the best case to the IOC and hope for the best. We have put everything into this process. We have transformed the television production, created consistent graphics, experimented with different types of floor and court, and improved our governance. We tick every box.”
In global terms, squash is not exactly football, but its reach is far beyond the majority of the present sports on the Olympic programme, with 144 affiliated nations and more than 50,000 courts around the world.
And it hardly needs stating that, if squash were selected by the IOC, the Olympic Games would instantly become the most coveted title. “I would gladly swap all seven of my world championship trophies for one Olympic gold,” David, the women’s world No 1, has said.
The selection process to join the Olympics in 2020 has been long and intense. In July 2011, squash was placed on a shortlist of seven after its governing body completed a detailed questionnaire. It then had to make a presentation to the programme commission of the IOC in Lausanne. In December 2012, the IOC sent an inspection team to a World Series event in Hong Kong to assess the quality of the event and the size of the audience.
In May this year, Shelley will have to make yet another presentation, this time to the IOC executive board. The board will then select one of the candidate sports — the others are climbing, karate, roller sports, baseball/softball, wakeboarding and wushu — to take to the full membership of the IOC. A simple majority would then be needed to make the the Games in 2020.
“That may be too late for me,” Matthew said. “But this feels like our time to make the cut. Another kick in the teeth would be a tragedy for the sport.”
1 World ranking held by either Nick Matthew or James Willstrop (both Yorkshiremen) throughout 2011 and 2012.
6 Number of English players in the men’s and women’s world top ten rankings.
47 Nations hosting World Tour events in 2012.
64 Proposed number of athletes who would represent squash in the 2020 Olympic Games.
185 Number of countries where squash is played.
50,000 Number of squash courts in the world.