Causing quite the racquet: It’s finally game on for squash at the Olympics - Hindustan Times

Causing quite the racquet: It’s finally game on for squash at the Olympics

ByRudraneil Sengupta
Mar 23, 2024 11:37 PM IST

Once an elite sport played in clubs, it has broken free of those shackles. Why is it one of the fastest-growing sports in the US? Where does India fit in?

From the start, the game has drawn people with the force of an addiction.

A squash court sits before the Great Pyramids of Giza, during the PSA women's world championship in 2019. (Getty Images) PREMIUM
A squash court sits before the Great Pyramids of Giza, during the PSA women's world championship in 2019. (Getty Images)

A dark ball thwacked from wall to wall, two people locked in combat in a cage-like arena, the flowing movement of the racquet alongside the thud of lunging feet, the grace of a spun shot against the violence of pure power — squash has it all.

Along with tennis and badminton, it completes the trinity of most popular racquet sports in the world.

Once an “elite” game played in clubs, it has broken free of those shackles to spread deep and wide, helped along by its inclusion into major multi-sports events such as the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games (both in 1998).

There was an early effort to have it included in the Olympic, in 1992; five more attempts between the 2000 Sydney Games and the 2020 Tokyo Games. Each time, the effort failed.

“Squash has a long and distinguished history of being snubbed when it comes to getting into the Olympics,” says Andrew Shelley, who was chief executive officer of the World Squash Federation (WSF) from 2010 to 2019. “We came closest when it was announced that baseball/softball was being taken out of the London 2012 programme and squash was voted top of the list of sports vying for those spots.”

Eventually, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to retain baseball/softball.

Then, at Rio 2016, squash lost out to golf and rugby sevens. Tokyo 2020 spelled déjà vu. The IOC decided to drop wrestling to bring in a new sport and squash was, again, top of the list. Then IOC put wrestling back in the programme.

Sometimes the longest of waits bears the sweetest returns.

The upcoming Games will be the last to ignore squash. It is part of five new additions to the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics, along with cricket, lacrosse, flag football and baseball/softball (which has been dropped in Paris 2024). For the racquet game, this ends a 30-year itch.

Squash has “far too long been the bridesmaid but never the bride,” says Niccolo Campriani, the three-time Olympic champion shooter from Italy who is sports director for LA 2028.

“It’s amazing,” says Cyrus Poncha, secretary general of the Squash Rackets Federation of India, and coach to an entire generation of India’s finest players, including Joshna Chinappa, Dipika Pallikal and Saurav Ghosal. “This is the result of thirty years of pushing, just being at it. One of the reasons it happened now is because the host country, the US, put so much support behind the sport.”

A shift in how Olympic sports are picked has helped. Since the Tokyo Games, each host country has been able to add up to five new games to an edition of the Olympics, in initiative called the Olympic Agenda 2020+5. The initiative is part of the effort to make the Games more relevant and more appealing to younger audiences.

In Tokyo, the five additions included karate, which is indigenous to Japan, and the return of baseball/softball, which is to Japan what cricket is to India. IOC also added skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing, with a clear eye on youth culture.

At each edition, the previous year’s +5 is evaluated by IOC and the next host country, and either retained or replaced. At Paris 2024, karate has been replaced by breaking (breakdancing).

Bounce rate

Squash makes perfect sense for LA; it is one of the fastest-growing sports in the US. One that has received a further boost ever since the American businessman Mark Walter began to invest heavily in it. Walter is the co-owner of the iconic LA Lakers (men’s) and LA Sparks (women’s) basketball teams and the Chelsea football club, and is chairman and controlling owner of the LA Dodgers. He is a key sponsor of the World Squash Championships and hosts numerous tournaments in the US.

In May, Walter acquired a stake in Squash Media & Marketing, which runs the game’s global pro PSA World Tour.

It was somewhat fitting that the decision to include squash was ratified at IOC’s congress in Mumbai, because India has a long history as a squash nation. One of the first squash courts built outside Europe came up at the Bombay Gymkhana in the 1880s. India was also one of the seven nations (with Pakistan, Britain, Egypt, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia) that formed the International Squash Rackets Federation in 1967 (now WSF).

In Pallikal, Chinappa, and Ghosal, we have players who have breached the global Top 10 and won medals at the Asian and Commonwealth Games.

Like many games invented in England and popularised across colonial territories, former British colonies dominate the sport. Click here to see who the world’s top players are, and how the game itself evolved.

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