August 17, 2016

We need to talk about cricket and the Olympics

The question has been raising its head with a certain regularity of late
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Los Angeles is the only city in the running for the 2024 Olympics that has previously converted baseball stadiums to be used for cricket © Getty Images

The sight of Sachin Tendulkar in Rio recently caused quite a flutter in the cricket world. What did the sighting of him with IOC chief Thomas Bach at a Rugby sevens match mean? Other than the Great T's duties as the Indian Olympic Association's (IOA) goodwill ambassador. Was cricket making a pitch for the Olympics by sending in its biggest living superstar?

Should cricket even be played under the tent of the Big O? Did the Big O want the sport in? Could T20 be the new Rugby sevens?

Turned out Tendulkar was in Rio not as a cricketing emissary of either the ICC or the BCCI. His duty as Indian Olympic "goodwill ambassador" was to pep up India's athletes and mingle with the upper echelons of the Olympic Family. La Famille are members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the "not-for-profit independent international organisation made up of volunteers" that owns and runs the Olympics. During the two weeks the event runs, OF members are awarded head-of-state privileges in the host city.

It's a good gig. As it happened, in a curious coincidence, when Tendulkar was in Rio, one of his besties - Nita Ambani, owner of the Mumbai Indians IPL franchise and wife of Mukesh, a regular in the top 50 on the Forbes billionaires list - was elected into the OF as an IOC member from India.

World rugby's chief executive, Brett Gosper, reported to the wires that Tendulkar had spent "a whole session" watching Rugby sevens. Tendulkar "loved it and was interested in rugby's journey to the Olympics and why that's an interesting prospect, possibly, for cricket," Gosper said. He was being kind, refraining from exercising rugby's well-established bragging rights. After all, which Commonwealth-centric sport played by a handful of nations at the very top, has an expanding and competitive World Cup, a wide player base, and has made the most of a format that has gone from being considered a tiddlywinks version of the real stuff to a globalisation-magnet?

Rugby appears to have found a way past the problems cricket currently wrestles with. The Olympic question was previously somewhere near the bottom of cricket's laundry list, but it appears now that there is a bit of a stir round it - for which Tendulkar is not the only one responsible. Once the Olympics have ended and Brazil's citizens are left cleaning up after the party and coping with the shock of horrendously large bills, a Very Important Meeting will take place - later in the year, between IOC chief Thomas Bach, ICC chairman Shashank Manohar and BCCI president Anurag Thakur, somewhere in India. No one will talk about it formally, but you heard it here first.

The meeting is meant to extend the discussion beyond the broader existential arguments that rise when the words "cricket" and "Olympics" are placed in the same sentence. It lies beyond whether cricket needs to bother with the quadrennial event or not. Or, using a phrase copyrighted by colleague Andrew Miller, OlympIN or OlympOUT. The sport, at the moment, is floating somewhere in the netherworld between these two, called OlympHOW on earth?

Should it even want to, the earliest Olympics that cricket can make a pitch for is 2024. The announcement of the new sports to figure in the 2020 Games was made a week before the Rio 2016 opening ceremony. They are karate, skateboarding, sports climbing, surfing, and the return of baseball/softball (possibly due to its great traction in Japan). The choice of these new sports owes partly to the need to reel in the young, for whom the modern pentathlon might represent some ancient idiosyncrasy, combined with the logistical ease of putting up temporary venues for these sports.

If cricket is interested in making a run for Rome, it must have a blueprint, and must hard-sell between now and the opening ceremony in Tokyo 2020. Which is where the argument gets messy and the matter of cricket wanting the Olympics and/or the Olympics wanting cricket is deemed "under consideration" and "exploratory".

Asian cricketing nations sweat over being involved in Olympics cricket because it instantly makes them answerable to their national Olympic body, and through that, more vulnerable to more intrusive governmental footprints in their operations

Gaining Olympic status comes with conditions attached, which the IOC is within its rights to lay down, but which don't quite serve cricket's purpose. The Olympics requires that the sports it hands out medals in bring their best teams and best players. Most sports and nations obediently toe the line. There are some exceptions, like football, which controls its own Olympic destiny and places age restrictions on competitors (all but three players per squad are under 23), or golf, a newbie, which in Rio had to deal with the lily-livered constitutions of its higher-ranked male players - four from the top ten pulled out. For cricket to stick to its best teams and best players defeats the theoretical purpose of its inclusion in the Olympics - broadening the sport's presence in non-traditional territories.

Someone suggested beach cricket. As if balancing three formats is not headache enough, batsmen and bowlers in swimwear doesn't provide the best solution either.

Then there's the infrastructure - drop-in pitches offer a solution, but what about the real estate required around that pitch? Outfield? Stands? What's the point if no one's watching? Tree falling in a silent forest, and so on. A cricket ground is far more high-maintenance than setting up a temporary skateboarding venue. Or even squash's easily dismantled all-glass courts, which turn up in front of the pyramids of Giza, in Hong Kong harbour, and in shopping malls. The candidate cities for 2024 are Budapest, Paris, Rome and Los Angeles. Of the lot, only LA has turned two baseball grounds into cricket fields.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that a 2008 briefing paper titled "Cricket Within the Olympic Program - A Golden Opportunity for the Development of Cricket and the Olympic Movement" was turned down by the ICC board. The sum and substance of it was that there was an East-West divide among the Full Members over cricket in the Olympics.

This is not to say that Asian wariness comes from its dislike of the Olympics. India, for one, have gone more than ten days without a medal in Rio, and the country is in a state of deep gloom and introspection. It is safe to say other subcontinental nations are as hooked to the Games if they have medal stakes. Rather, Asian cricketing nations sweat over being involved in Olympics cricket because it instantly makes them answerable to their national Olympic body, and through that, more vulnerable to more intrusive governmental footprints in their operations.

The judges of the Indian Supreme Court would agree that the IOA makes the BCCI look like a cross between the efficiencies of Sony Corp and the humane purpose of Amnesty International. As India's most self-sustaining and most profitable sports body, it is no surprise the BCCI wants zero conversation with the IOA, and thus with Olympic sport.

Yet there is more about cricket's dilemma over its best possible relationship with the Olympics than the fact that it is limited by Asian shyness. It will require a straightening out of many glitches in the ICC's functioning to let them catch up with the rugby example. Rugby, through its organised, multi-tiered structure of competition and clear qualification pathways for teams to make it to its biggest events, is about five to seven years ahead of cricket. The ICC's multiple tiers of competition and ranking systems are well intentioned and try to serve the smaller nations, but the routes for qualification to its biggest events are muddied and keep being changed. Sixteen teams in a World Cup or ten? Champions Trophy or what's the point? How many teams in the World T20? Unless cricket accepts that insularity at the highest level eventually fosters inbreeding, the sport could be stuck in the same cyclical conversations every four years.

What about Sach and Bach, you ask? Who knows: maybe it is another kind of Olympic debut for cricket. Tendulkar is certainly a member of the global sporting elite. What if the next step up for him is a sporting knighthood of sorts: membership - through some category - of the ultimate athletic aristocracy, the IOC? Maybe the OF really liked him.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  •   Vijay Srinivas on August 22, 2016, 6:47 GMT

    Yes, it is a good choice for cricket to be at the Olympics in T20 format. We have rugby now, and baseball is also knocking at the doors again. Surely, cricket can be finished in 15 days, if possible, with 12 to 16 nations. And this would also be a golden opportunity, especially for the medal-starved subcontinent teams (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) to cherish their dream of a medal.

  •   cricfan02068704 on August 21, 2016, 14:10 GMT

    look at the team germany and brazil played in the 'Olympics Football Final' and you'd know the importance of this article.

  • seth_cricket on August 19, 2016, 19:48 GMT

    There will be always ifs and buts when you want cricket in Olympic. Big 3 and ICC must be held responsible to make sure cricket is included in Olympic. If they cannot they are not capable cricket administrators or control freaks or greedy. Must allow cricket to expand. Once cricket becomes olympic sport there will be 10 to 20 more countries will start playing cricket seriously. May be keep Test and ODI formats for current top 10 cricket playing nations(kind of tier system) and T20 for olympic(for all nations). May be have separate boards or subsidiary board for T20 format to avoid coming under olympic sports governing bodies. No need to hard sell cricket, already famous sport. IOC wants T20 format in olympics. BCCI officials who oppose or hesitate idea of cricket in olympics must be fired. lodha committee should also check why BCCI oppose cricket in olympics. ICC and all country boards should approve and work towards cricket in olympic 2024.

  • Roo8 on August 19, 2016, 19:14 GMT

    Cricket will not be there in the Olympics for sure! First of all, Cricket is still limited to 15-20 countries. Secondly, Problem will be with West Indies' participation and selection process in the Olympics since they participate in the Olympics under different nations. Next, the Top # (BCCI, CA, ECB) will lose TV money for Olympics. They cannot let it happen. Probably that's the reason why ICC has also stayed away from Olympics talk.

  •   M.s. Venkatraghavan on August 19, 2016, 11:24 GMT

    Olmpic games must be having different games but with short duration only and hence Cricket may not get the nod. However if Cricket is to be introduced then it should be of 40 overs per side with two innings of 20 overs as toss should not benefit any one side as we see today even in major tournaments where toss decides the winner.Secondly only one bowler should get 5 overs and the remaining 15 overs by 5 bowlers with 3 overs each. Field restrictions should be for 4 overs only in the first innings only. Hope such important change can attract the ttention of organisers of Olympics but getting nod will still be difficult.

  • shakki on August 19, 2016, 1:08 GMT

    @DeepFreezed, India is assured a medal in badminton in the women's draw. It is one for the region at least. :)

  • Cricinfouser on August 18, 2016, 16:35 GMT

    @NAIDOOMERIT test cricket in olympiscs . LOLllllllllllllllll ..it was a joke or you boozed up already???? only t20 format can become part of olympics if they go sure about this

  • Deepfreezed on August 18, 2016, 13:35 GMT

    Rather than trying to shoehorn Cricket in to Olympics, South Asian countries should just concentrate on their other athletes. Close to 2 billion people in this region and not a single medal to show in Rio 2016. What an utter failure.

  • naidoomerit on August 18, 2016, 13:24 GMT

    Test cricket is the highest level of examination of a players capabilities. How about test cricket at the olympics? Have say, 20 nations competing against each other in in a round round robin, with each team playing two games against every other team. Then have a semi final, final and third place payoff.

  • John-Price on August 18, 2016, 9:30 GMT

    How about reviving the old single-wicket format or better still, pairs cricket. Two players bat and bowl against two other players. 10 overs; runs deducted for wickets lost; neutral fielders; 16 countries; four leagues of 4; top two from each league go into quarter finals. One ground for men, one for women. Over in a week, all good fun.

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