Cricket’s Problematic Bid for the Olympics
What is a true representation of the sport?
The irony of only two teams competing for cricket’s gold and silver medals at the Olympics in 1900 is not lost as cricket contemplates a re-entry with an eight-team pool that is not likely to feature any team outside of the so-called big league, making it a largely a redundant affair on the world stage, not to mention a problematic representation of the sport.
There is strong reason to believe that even the Olympics courting cricket is not for the right reason which is why the idea sits somewhat uneasily on cricket minds.
Almost stealing the thunder from the Indian medallists being felicitated in the country upon their return from the Tokyo Olympics, Jay Shah of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) confirmed the news that the International Cricket Council (ICC) was indeed pushing for a bid for cricket’s inclusion at the Los Angeles Games in 2028 but also, that India would be participating if the deal went through.
The news was met with mixed reactions, with some rejoicing cricket’s long-awaited entry into the Olympics while others, and this includes a fair number of cricket traditionalists, purists and fans alike, were more sceptical of the idea.
While the epitome of any sport lies in its viability across the globe and its inclusion in an epic multi-discipline event like the Olympics to honour the best in the discipline, cricket has a few pointers that counter the fact.
In announcing the decision, ICC chair Greg Barclay released a statement to the effect:
“We see the Olympics as a part of cricket’s long term future. We have more than a billion fans globally and almost 90 per cent of them want to see cricket at the Olympics. Clearly, cricket has a strong and passionate fan base, particularly in south Asia, where 92 percent of our fans come from, and whilst there are also 30 million cricket fans in the USA.”
But the problem is almost immediate. The claim of a billion cricket fans is not hard to see given where cricket’s interest is primarily centred – India – and the idea that the USA has a thirty million fan base does not automatically translate to USA cricket having a following of 30 million followers.
Statistics can easily be misrepresented as they can be used to paint a false, even delusional picture. However, the numbers themselves cannot lie.
Looking at the same numbers, it is not hard either to see why the Olympics is showing an interest in cricket.
Olympics viewership has halved from the London Olympics in 2012 to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 to only twenty million viewers.
The Olympics would like to breach this largely virgin South Asian territory and given that cricket is second to be the world’s second most popular sport after football despite its concentrated pockets around the world, it would seem it was a marriage of equals.
India is celebrating the most medal winners in its history – seven. It seemed ignominious for a 1.3 billion population that they could only produce seven medal-worthy winners, while other more established nations like the USA and China are racking up the medals tally consistently.
Here is the tricky story though.
Firstly, only twelve cricket teams currently play Test cricket. Although the ICC boasts of 92 affiliate nations.
When was the last time an affiliate team broke through the ranks? One has to go back to 2003 and the ICC Cricket World Cup in South Africa to remember the heroics of Kenya which got into the business end of the tournament.
Increasingly, there has been a push within cricket’s own circles to sideline these affiliate nations from their only means of exposure – qualifying for the World Cup tournaments – simply because they are not commercially viable for broadcasting and media rights packaging.
Even if cricket were to make it to the Olympics, it would still be likely that even amongst the 12 teams, there would be the usual suspects showing up at the event, leaving cricket to be showcased at the event but sending false hopes to its nearly hundred strong teams on the periphery.
The West Indies will not be able to represent as one nation and neither will England under the Great Britain bracket.
Which Caribbean nation will go through? Without sufficient development projects to bridge the gap of disparity of competitiveness between the permanent member nations and the affiliates, how does cricket aim to be a true representative of deciphering the best team at the Olympics which is riveting only because the quality of the performers is too close to call?
Is medal assurance is now making India change its mind about sending cricket to the Olympics? Is that not convoluted enough?
Secondly, one of the conditions in a sport making it to the Olympics is that the format in which it will be presented at the Olympics should be in international operation.
Cricket has run into hot water over this issue, apart from vested interests of boards in the past. Will a compromise be reached now?
While there is euphoria over the possibility of cricket being showcased at the Los Angeles event even though there is some consideration that cricket would be better off making its debut once more at the Brisbane Games in the next edition in 2032, there is still little consensus about the format in which it will go ahead.
The England and Wales Cricket Board pushing for the Hundred comes as no surprise though there is also in some quarters a push for T10 (as opposed to Twenty20) as a more palatable sport given the time constraints of being able to create space for doubleheaders in a ten days span of time that the Olympics can afford.
The problem with the Hundred is that it is yet another variation of shortening the sport and not all that different from Twenty20 given that it only reduces the match by 20 balls an innings. As far as T10 goes, while the ICC has sanctioned this version in the gulf, it is not an internationally prominent format and therefore, goes against the traditional Olympics regulations.
Twenty20 for all its globally viable purposes is not the true representation of skills and temperament of what makes a cricketer at the highest level.
With it being a more franchisee based concept than a World Cup viability, Twenty20 is about specialists than about cricketers in the true sense. Is that a fair representation of being medal-worthy for something as worthy as the Olympics?
There is some consideration that a better compromise would be the one-day internationals as a fairer representation of the sport though it might be an overkill given that cricket has its own legitimate version to decide the overall winner in the time tested World Cup format. Redundant enough?
There are suggestions that Twenty20 might be easier to push through and also, make cricket’s case easier at the Olympics simply because the format has been around and also, that it would kill two birds with one stone by allowing cricket to do away with the currently overcooked goose that is the ICC Twenty20 World Cup.
The only problem with promoting this idea is that the sports that do make it to the Olympics not only feature athletes of the highest quality, but also, in the version of the sport that is internationally renowned as the very pinnacle in its form.
Can cricket say the same for Twenty20, leave alone the Hundred or T20? At the moment, teams that do well at Twenty20 events such as the West Indies rarely reflect the gulf that has developed after the top four teams in the game that are fairly consistent across all three accepted formats.
Although it is being claimed that pushing cricket at the Olympics will be an impetus to push the governments of fringe teams into driving funding into developing these teams, increased medal tally has not done the trick even in the Indian context despite this unprecedented adulation that often comes after the fact and soon as easily forgotten.
Paraag Marathe, part of the ICC Olympics Group that also includes the ECB, the Asian Cricket Council and Zimbabwe cricket, seemed overly optimistic of what cricket at the Olympics could do for USA Cricket.
“USA Cricket is thrilled to be able to support cricket’s bid for inclusion in the Olympics, the timing of which aligns perfectly with our continuing plans to develop the sport in the USA. With so many passionate cricket fans and players already in the USA and a huge global audience, we believe that cricket’s inclusion will add great value to the Los Angeles 2021 Olympics Games and help us to achieve our own vision of establishing cricket as a mainstream sport in this country.”
What Marathe failed to mention was that too many young Indian cricketers are already “retiring” in order to qualify for the Major League Cricket in the USA because of the BCCI’s current restrictive policy that does not allow Indian cricketers to participate in franchisee Twenty20 leagues overseas.
So it is questionable how much of it is homegrown talent and how much of it is a talent that has emigrated overseas, which in the past has made up the numbers of certain affiliate teams that made it on the rare occasion to the top league in a world cup context.
That this exposure will drive the Chinese and USA markets into greater development of cricket seems highly unlikely given that they are not likely to sudden divert their resources from their tried and tested disciplines into a sport where it is highly unlikely that their team will break ranks at the highest level in the immediate or even ten years down the line and that too account for a medal or two at most.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the whole premise of participation at the Olympics seems diluted by the idea of the very motivations that are driving cricket and the Olympics into this arranged marriage.
The ECB sees it as a way of promoting another home driven format – Twenty20 before the Hundred – in the hope of resuscitating cricket interest in the flagging home of the sport.
The BCCI now sees its potential perhaps in how the medal winners are being received and with government impetus – Shah is after all the son of Amit Shah which in itself is contravening of the Lodha committee reforms that looked to separated political affiliations from sports administration – is looking to create its own larger entity.
With conditions of course, since it has traditionally opposed losing its autonomy to bodies like the Indian Olympics Association and through the avoidance of drug testing arm of WADA in India, NADA.
Olympics is meant to be the pinnacle of any sport. It is why the world-class athletes begin training the very next day after the conclusion of an Olympics event in preparation for the next one four years away.
This has also caused some problems in sports like tennis where the top players have tended to be choosy over what they value and where they wish to spread their time – the Grand Slam or the Olympics.
One of the biggest reasons the BCCI is stating this change of heart is the push from the current Indian government for increasing the medal score at the Olympics.
The idea of having a men’s and women’s version at the Olympics means a possibility of two medals, notwithstanding the fact that India is yet to taste top success in the men’s arena since the ICC Champions Trophy in 2017.
However, it has to be remembered that this at the end of the day will ensure at best two medals. This with a large contingent of players who make up a team.
It seems that the Indian government and the sports ministry are better advised to divert their energies to developing the infrastructure to produce greater medal possibilities by following the China and USA models of throwing the gates open to discovering talent by training a larger number of athletes in the various disciplines instead of resting medal hopefuls around the neck of one team in an elusive discipline.
With the podium potential of three medals in each discipline, increasing the calibre and number of athletes makes far better sense.
Besides, cricket, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, does not need a platform nor additional spotlight that takes away from much-needed resources in the other disciplines where athletes could do with greater financial assistance, support structure and backing.
As far as the Olympics goes, if the South Asia Market is their goal to tap into a larger commercial market, perhaps they might want to look into providing impetus towards these governments enhancing interest in non-cricket sports.
Besides, until cricket can sort itself out, having greater exposure is going to do little for the sport itself if it is only going to add to its languishing affiliate nation tally.
Will cricket give up its precious revenue-making bilateral series time, particularly time like the IPL window or the Hundred, for an Olympics event every four years while the remuneration is not likely to justify the decision?
Is cricket willing to incur the short term loss for potential long term gains that might still not accrue from the Olympics where medal racing nations have their traditional sports back?
How likely will it be down the line when cricket might see the merit of sending a second-string team to the Olympics to make up the numbers while the likes of mainstream players are engaged in more lucrative, bilateral engagements?
Is it not why football has so little weightage at the Olympics while the recently concluded Euro took on so much attention and importance?
What is a true representation of the sport? An abridged version, made up of teams with expats and retiring players who will make up teams like Major League Cricket in the USA in a couple of years time?
When purely commercial interests drive even a body like the Olympics to include a sport not for its high-value quality but for its ability to bring it a market, it feels like a self-goal, not done for the right reasons, which is marrying the two because it enhances sport at the highest echelons.