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Wrestling, squash, baseball and softball spin the Olympic wheel of fortune
One of the year’s most heated competitions in all of sports will take place in a Hilton hotel conference room in Buenos Aires. But unless any of the participants get a case of the jitters, you won’t see a lot of sweat. You won’t see many athletes, either, or any courts, nets, uniforms or scoreboards.
Instead, on Sunday, Sept. 8, you’ll see the leaders of three sports federations – wrestling, squash and baseball-softball, which combined last year – presenting finely honed sales pitches to the 104 members of the International Olympic Committee. After each 20-minute spiel, there will be 10 minutes of questions and answers. At some point, the committee members will test their electronic voting equipment with an irrelevant warm-up question. (The group was once asked to choose a favorite of three oceans; the Atlantic won.) Then the members will decide a matter of genuine import: Which of these sports will join the Olympic Games in 2020?
It will be the culmination of a contest that began two years ago and has cost the finalists millions of dollars. But for the winner, the prize is so big that it’s hard to value. Actually, part of it can be valued. Every sport gets a cut of the money generated by the Games’ broadcast and revenue deals, with each share determined by the sport’s popularity, measured by the number of spectators, television viewers and other factors. The pot to be divvied up for sports in the London Games last year is USD 520 million.
More important, the sport gets the global exposure of billions of television and online viewers and a place in the sports pantheon in which countries worldwide invest, simply because the sport is part of the Olympics. Suddenly, there are youth leagues and commercial endorsements. Medals are at stake, and with them a chance to burnish national self-image.
“The U.S. is a special case because, unlike most countries, it doesn’t have a direct federal government program for sports,” says Michael Payne, the IOC’s former marketing director. “But look at Turkey. It’s currently spending USD 500 million a year on sports development, and all of that money goes to Olympics-related sports. You’re either at the table or you’re not.”
In the United States, the imprimatur of the Games means universities pay attention. A few years ago, it was hard to find a college team in women’s beach volleyball. The sport is now an Olympics favorite, and there are about 34 college teams, says Doug Beal, the chief executive of USA Volleyball.
“It’s impossible to overstate how significant it is to be included in the Olympics,” Beal says. “Participation has increased by a factor of 100 or 200. We’ve got high-performance camps, a national junior tour. The Olympics drives kids’ interest. They see it on TV, they identify with the medal winners, and they want to play that game.”
This is squash’s third attempt to enter the Olympics, which has capped the total number of sports at 28, and it is the only sport among the finalists that has never been in the Games.
For squash’s ardent fan base, this is more than a little confounding. Every four years, when synchronized swimming scissor-kicks its way onto the world stage, squash aficionados ask: If that sport is in the disco, how long will squash be stuck behind the velvet rope?
Not much longer, if Mike Lee has his way. He is chairman of Vero Communications, a sports lobbying consulting firm that is part of a small but growing industry for campaigns like this. Lee, a onetime political consultant who is based in London, was hired by the World Squash Federation to oversee its Olympic bid. Among Vero’s recent achievements is guiding rugby sevens into the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Squash was one of the sports that rugby sevens bested.
Working in politics and Olympic sports is not that different, Lee said. Both need compelling narratives and both need to cater to voters. The squash narrative, as framed by Vero, is all about the game’s global reach, its embrace of innovation and its easy integration into the Games – the event would involve just 64 players from around the world, 32 men and 32 women, in a glass court that could be built anywhere.
“In the final stage of this, we’re also giving a push to the very salient and important point that squash is the only truly new sport in terms of the Olympic program,” Lee said. “That will feature significantly in our final presentation in Buenos Aires.”
What exactly is the Olympics looking for? The IOC has a dauntingly long list of 39 criteria. The sport should offer gender equity (medals to men and women in roughly equal numbers), excellence around the world (as opposed to a few countries) and popularity among fans and sponsors. Ease of broadcasting the sport is another factor, along with the cost of building a place for competition. There is also the vague but all-important “value added,” defined as “value added by the sport to the Olympic Games; value added by the Olympic Games to the sport.”
Strict rules govern how federations can woo those 104 IOC members, a reaction to the bribery scandal after more than USD 1 million was spent on wining and dining IOC officials to bring the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City. No gifts. No disparaging the competition. No visiting the homes of IOC members. Email and letters are fine. Direct contact is encouraged, so long as it’s at a place like a sporting event.
The process, in short, is designed for maximum fairness. But that doesn’t mean every federation has an equal chance, at least not this time. Many Olympic watchers see wrestling as the heavy favorite, which on its face might seem strange, given that the IOC executive board essentially booted the sport from the Games in February. For years, the board criticized wrestling as boring and bewildering to viewers and for failing to update its rules and presentation.
After wrestling showed up on the finalists’ list, many people concluded that the point of this multisport contest had suddenly changed. It was no longer to refresh the Games, as widely believed. It was to give wrestling – which has been linked to the Olympics going back to their birth in 776 B.C. – what a consultant called “the mother of all wake-up calls” – to stun it into modernizing.
It seems to have worked: After its ouster, wrestling immediately started a major turnaround and charm offensive, overhauling its rules. Squash, which Olympics watchers had regarded as the front-runner for more than a year, is now considered a long shot. Then again, IOC voters are hard to pin down. Some people say a surprise verdict in Buenos Aires is still possible.
“You have 104 free agents here,” said one Olympics consultant who isn’t involved with any of the sports and who requested anonymity for fear of offending decision makers. “They have been known to make multiple commitments, which they can do because the vote is secret. The level of predictability here is lower than any you’ll find in politics.”
All three federations have spent the past few months in a lobbying frenzy. But schmoozing every IOC member is a challenge. They are spread around the globe, and no country has enough of them to form a bloc with any heft. The United States has three votes; Russia has four. There are members in Zimbabwe, Italy, New Zealand, Burundi, China and Oman.
Representatives from the federations would reveal little about strategy, even declining to say who would make squash’s presentation in Buenos Aires. Narayana Ramachandran, president of the World Squash Federation and the sport’s main Olympics ambassador, declined in early August to discuss his travel plans.
“If people read where I’m going, who I’m meeting, that would reveal strategy,” he said by phone from Chennai, India, where he lives. Of the three sports in competition, squash has the most to gain from the Olympics. For the uninitiated, the game is played in a what is basically a large, open-air box, with two competitors hitting a ball against the front wall. You win a point if the ball bounces twice before your opponent can reach it; you lose the point if you hit the ball too low on the front wall and strike what is known as the tin, squash’s answer to the tennis net. Often called chess on legs, the sport requires endurance, strength and a lot of strategizing.
In the United States, the game is largely an East Coast phenomenon and is regarded as a game for elite prep schools, colleges and clubs. But it’s an everyman’s workout in countries like South Africa and Australia, where courts are found in places that also have bars and dart boards. There are 50,000 courts in 185 countries, according to the World Squash Federation.
The game is positively obscure compared with its competitors – and, relative to baseball, the pay stinks. The top player in squash last year, Nick Matthew of England, earned USD 129,592 in prize money, according to ESPN magazine. The average salary for a major-league baseball player that year was USD 3.2 million.
Squash would be even poorer without the energy and money of one man: Ziad al-Turki. A 48-year-old Saudi Arabian whose father runs Atco, a Saudi-based international conglomerate, al-Turki became a fan of the game as a boy, playing on a court that an uncle had built on his roof. When he was in his late 30s, al-Turki lived in Connecticut, where the teaching pro at a local club was a retired squash great named Brett Martin. That convinced him that the game was in dire need of help.
“I couldn’t believe it,” al-Turki said in a phone interview. “Nobody hit the ball like Brett Martin, and here is this guy, giving lessons for USD 25 an hour. We became friends, and that’s when I learned that as brilliant as the game of squash is, there was no money in it.”
In 2005, with the permission of the Professional Squash Association, the game’s pro league, al-Turkiorganized a tournament in Saudi Arabia with total prize money of USD 127,500, about double what some tournaments then offered. A group of players soon asked him to join the PSA board, and he is now the organization’s chairman. He has spent a lot of time and more of his personal fortune than he would care to calculate – “I don’t want to scare myself,” he said – revamping the sport.
For a tournament in England, he oversaw the construction of a futuristic, inflatable structure that could be built around a portable court, serving as an eye-catching marquee. He also made the action easier to follow on TV and in the stands, bringing in top-of-the-line video cameras and experimenting with different tints for the court’s glass walls. (He settled on a light shade of purple.) He even changed the color of the ball, which is typically black.
“We went to Dunlop,” the sports equipment maker, “and said, ‘Everybody complains you can’t see the ball on TV,'” he recalled. “They made us balls in neon, pink, yellow. It turns out that what looks best is a white ball in a court with purple walls.”
These alterations have made the game more accessible and lent it a youthful cast. Which has made it more appealing to the Olympics and is a big reason that squash is in the hunt in Buenos Aires. Success there would be the greatest moment in squash’s 140-year history, and the Olympics tournament would instantly become the sport’s most prestigious event.
A promotional video for the bid shows the world’s top women’s player, Nicol David of Malaysia, saying, “I would happily trade all six world titles for an Olympic gold medal.”
If squash has the most to gain by inclusion in the Games, wrestling has the most to lose by exclusion. Several Olympics experts said exile from the Games would effectively sound a death knell for the sport, entailing not just the loss of Olympic money but also a loss, or drastic reduction, in subsidies to the 177 national wrestling federations, a vast majority of which are financed by governments.
Wrestling’s journey to the list of finalists began with an act by the IOC executive board that in hindsight looks like that of a furious, passive-aggressive parent. On Feb. 12, the board announced what it called the Olympics’ 25 core sports – and wrestling wasn’t on the list.
The board had been grumbling about wrestling for years. FILA, the sport’s federation, refused to evolve, and its arcane rules had left many spectators confused about the basics, like who was winning a match. Other sports have enlivened their events; weight lifting, for instance, now relies on the same sort of tension-filled music once heard during the silences on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The emphasis is on entertainment, excitement and clarity.
Wrestling made no concessions to entertainment, and it had other problems. It awarded more medals to men than to women. It also seemed to take for granted its position in the Games. While other sports carefully filled out a long questionnaire detailing why they should continue to be part of the Olympics, wrestling did such a slapdash job that the IOC sent it back for a do-over, said Anita DeFrantz, an IOC member.
“They didn’t take it seriously,” she said. “One of the questions was, ‘How many continental games does your sport compete in,’ like the Pan Am Games? They put zero. Which isn’t true.”
The federation didn’t even bother to send anyone to the meeting where the IOC listed the 25 core sports – and eliminated wrestling. Some of wrestling’s leaders learned about the disaster on the news.
The cavalier attitude went beyond paperwork. A certain amount of schmoozing is expected of representatives from participating sports, many of whom have set up their federations near Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC’s base. The International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles – which somehow translates to the acronym FILA – is based about 20 miles from the IOC, but until recently, FILA’s leaders kept to themselves.
“I talked to a guy at the IOC who said, ‘I’ve worked here for 14 years and I’ve never met one person from FILA,'” said Robert Condron, part of a small armada of consultants and public relations specialists brought aboard FILA after wrestling was pushed out of the Games. “The thing with the IOC is recognition and trust. ‘I know you. I trust you.’ That wasn’t there.”
Four days after the Feb. 12 announcement, Raphael Martinetti, the FILA president, resigned. Wrestling organizations around the world quickly rallied behind Nenad Lalovic, a burly and charismatic Serbian, who became the acting president. He announced changes to the rules almost immediately, all intended to make matches more exciting and easier to follow. (Takedowns, for instance, would be worth two points, making them more valuable than pushing an opponent out of the ring.) The men-to-women ratio in medal opportunities would be improved by eliminating two categories in men’s competition and adding two for women.
In early March, Lalovic met with Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, to tell him, in effect: message received.
“I said to him, ‘I know why we are out, and we don’t blame anybody but ourselves,'” Lalovic recalled, speaking by phone last week from Buenos Aires, where he had just landed. “We were not awake. We were not listening. We were hardheaded and we have to reverse that situation.”
A budget for a readmission campaign was quickly drawn up, with a ceiling of USD 2 million, Lalovic said. He and his staff hired TSE Consulting to develop a strategy and Teneo Holdings, based in New York, to shape wrestling’s presentations. One of the bigger outlays: FILA bankrolled the flights and hotel stays of representatives from 132 countries who traveled to Moscow in May for what was called an Extraordinary Congress, where Lalovic was formally elected. Simply sending FILA’s entourage of a dozen or so people to Buenos Aires for two weeks will cost, he estimates, more than USD 100,000.
“We did all that we could in such a short period,” Lalovic said. “That was our handicap. The other sports had more time to prepare.”
In fact, softball and baseball began trying to reclaim their Olympics spots almost as soon as they lost them, after Beijing in 2008. They were dropped for a variety of reasons, IOC members and consultants say, including baseball’s doping problems and the dominance of a few countries. Then there is Major League Baseball’s refusal to alter its season so the best players can go to the Olympics.
This is a serious impediment because the Games want the highest standard of competition. Undeterred, the leaders of the World Baseball Softball Confederation have been fanning out around the world. In a recent visit to New York, three sat in a conference room with a reporter at a downtown law firm to explain their case. The group included a surprise: a son of Fidel Castro, Antonio, who works for the World Baseball Softball Confederation. A tan, 40-ish man in a dark suit, he looked more like an international banker than his fatigues-wearing father.
“We don’t see this as an issue at all,” Castro said when asked about baseball’s Major League problem. The reason, it seems, is that if baseball returned, it would happen seven years from now. “We have a long time to find a realistic solution,” he said.
The time may well be much longer than seven years, given wrestling’s status as the odds-on favorite. But the inclusion of wrestling has caused much head-scratching, even among Olympic higher-ups.
The former executive board member Denis Oswald, an IOC voter and a candidate to replace the current IOC president, told reporters in June that there were “other ways to warn” wrestling that it needed to shape up. Several consultants, and some fans, have described the process as “ludicrous,” given that the original point of this expensive exercise was to bring new blood into the Games.
“I think a lot of people will conclude that this whole thing was a charade,” said Brett Erasmus, author of Brett’s Squash Blog, which has a widget on its front page counting down the seconds until the vote in Buenos Aires. “I’m sure a lot of other sports would conclude the same thing. It is disheartening. You get the sense that we will never have a chance, no matter what we do.”
Payne, the former Olympics marketing director, thinks that squash’s and baseball-softball’s most likely paths to the Games will come with the election of a new IOC president. That vote is Sept. 10, and Payne expects that the winner will be less wedded to the current cap of 28 sports in the Games.
Perhaps that president would fast-track the entry of a new sport in a tighter window than the seven years it typically takes. Otherwise, the Olympics roster in 2020 won’t offer anything that could be called new. Unless you count a spiffed-up version of a sport first seen at the Games 2,800 years ago.
A long, expensive bet on a big jackpot
The competition for a spot in the Olympics can be very lucrative, but it is tough, can last years and is expensive.
Viewed strictly from a business perspective, a spot in the Olympics is the most lucrative investment a sport can make. But the competition is stiff and usually lasts for years. And according to sports lobbying consultants, it isn’t cheap.
Consultants, who connect sports federation leaders to members of the International Olympic Committee, charge monthly fees ranging from USD 20,000 to USD 25,000. Communications strategists devise talking points and main themes, in much the same way that political consultants help with messaging. They generally charge USD 150,000 to USD 200,000 a campaign.
Every sport in contention needs a top-quality video, and that can cost USD 100,000 to USD 150,000 – more if celebrities are in it.
Travel is a huge expense, too, because federation leaders and their minions fly around the world to make their case. The rule of thumb is USD 8,000 to USD 12,000 a trip, per person.
Add to this the salaries of federation employees dedicated to the Olympic campaign, and the total outlays are more than USD 1 million – sometimes much more.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service