We need to talk about cricket and the Olympics
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".
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