In the Paris Olympics of 1900, Pierre de Courbertin was struggling to put up various disciplines together to give cohesive shape to the modern Games. Among the many events hosted, one was pigeon shooting and the other a sport called cricket.
While the shooters took aim at pigeons bunched together in a cage, risking injury to people watching with pellets flying around, cricket had no takers. Eventually, a club team from England and one from France participated. Pigeon shooting today remains an exotic amateurish venture, while cricket has expanded as a sport, but has never seen its return to the Games.
Behind the evolution of the Olympic Games as a hardcore professionally managed sporting extravaganza with strong political overtones that costs the hosts not only billions of dollars but even puts the economy of an entire nation at risk, are many such stories where events like even ballooning were once part of the Games.
While Rio de Janeiro is set to organise 28 sporting disciplines, two more than the 26 held in the London Games, the cricketing world is once again debating why India’s favourite sport has not found favour with the International Olympic Committee since its debut and exit after the Paris Games.
In the long list of sporting events that found their place in the Games, especially in the Paris event, are disciplines like angling, cannon shooting, fire fighting, kite flying, pigeon racing and in more recent times, disciplines like taekwondo and wushu.
Till the 1992 Olympics, the host nations were at liberty to include a few events of their interest as demonstration sports with no medals at stake. Though this practice was discontinued after the Barcelona Games, disciplines like tennis and badminton found their way the arena as medal events after they were included as demonstration sports.
Today, the choice of games made by the host nation can be discarded by the next country to host the Games and replaced by disciplines of is choice.
Cricket, which may not be played by many nations but has a television audience that can match that of even football, has its own problems that have stymied its inclusion in the Games. The foremost, before the advent of the one-dayers, was the time factor. It was impossible to accommodate a game that lasted for five days. Now with the arrival of the T-20 the time factor is no longer an impediment to its inclusion. That there are only 8-10 active teams which play the game, while another 8-10 teams pursue it at an amateur level, is also not a hurdle.
What is creating problems is that the International Cricket Committee (ICC) fears loss of revenue and an erosion of its own cricketing calendar’s significance if the T-20 format is made part of the Games. In that scenario, would winning an Olympic medal become of more significance than winning the World Cup? And what about the huge revenues earned through broadcasting rights of the World Cup? The fear that the four-year cycle of the Olympics would adversely affect the two-year cycle of the T-20 World Cup and may even have to be scrapped confronts the cricketing establishment today.
The ICC may still be amenable to making adjustments considering the fillip the sport will get and may help in expanding its limited base, but unfortunately, not so the Board Of Control For Cricket In India (BCCI). The BCCI office-bearers are possessive about their turf and if they have to be part of the Olympic movement, they will have to liaise closely with the Indian Olympic Committee. It is an option that has been resisted by the board, and resulted in India sending a B team to the Commonwealth Games held in Kuala Lumpur in 1998.
However, everything is not as pessimistic as it seems. There are elements within the ICC that are keen that cricket becomes a part of the Olympic movement and there is a strong possibility that 2024 may see cricket as a medal event. What lends credence to this optimism is the news emanating from Rome, which is one of the contenders for the 2024 Olympics. The Italian Olympic committee members are keen that cricket be part of the Games and have said so in clear terms. Even Paris, another city vying for the 2024 Games, is not averse to this idea.
What could once again stall cricket’s entry is the internal politics of the ICC and BCCI’s active role in this. The board should realise that, like in tennis where the players still give precedence Grand Slams over the Olympics, the cricketers and public too would value the ICC-run tournaments as much as they do today.
The fear of losing revenue or prestige is no argument against letting the sport be part of the Olympic fold.
If beach volleyball can now be a permanent fixture of the Games, why should cricket miss out?
Pradeep Magazine is a senior sports journalist
The views expressed are personal