The approval of India is needed before a bid can be put forward but Olympic status would help the sport’s image become more global and less colonial.
For all that the Olympic Games has become a byword for corruption and greed, it is challenged by only the football World Cup in terms of global popularity.
Inclusion brings exposure to new audiences and opens up cash from national governments and the International Olympic Committee itself. That is why rugby and golf rejoined in Rio last year and the World Squash Federation president was “heartbroken” to learn that squash would not feature in 2020.
Cricket has long been unique among major sports in its reticence about joining the Olympic Games: an oddity that speaks of the sport’s conservatism and the historic lack of concern of its largest members for increasing the sport’s global footprint.
While dashed dreams have been a recurrence in recent cricket politics, there is now a distinct sense that the landscape is shifting. In March David Richardson, chief executive of the International Cricket Council, declared that the “time is right” to apply to enter the Games in 2024. Since then the success of the Women’s World Cup has added to belief within the sport that cricket should and will rejoin the Games, which will essentially depend on whether India can follow other major nations and the International Cricket Council in embracing the concept.
“Inclusion in the Olympics would be phenomenal for the globalisation of the game – both in terms of participation and fan engagement,” says Clare Connor, England’s head of women’s cricket. Tony Irish, the executive chairman of FICA, the players’ association, describes the Games as “essential to expanding cricket into other countries”.
The support is shared by Lars Rensmann, the co-author of Gaming the World. “It would definitely advance cricket’s globalisation,” he believes. Rensmann suggests the rise in rugby suggests there could be “potential” in China too.
The most obvious benefit to cricket’s penurious associate nations is in direct cash, given that rugby has received at least £25m through national Olympic committees since rejoining, Yet at least as important is something less tangible: cricket’s visibility and relevance, and governments in emerging nations extending a more welcoming stance to a sport that would be more able to position itself as genuinely global rather than merely colonial.
Brian Mantle, the general manager of the German Cricket Federation, tells a revealing story of a conversation held with a German public charity last year, who had noted the vast numbers of Afghan refugees playing cricket. “We were getting close to investment only to fall down when they realised cricket was not in the Olympics.”
Olympic inclusion would not lead to cricket suddenly becoming the second most popular sport in the world, let alone making good on the ICC’s ambitions to become the “world’s favourite sport”. Baseball was an Olympic sport from 1992-2008 (and will return in 2020) but its inclusion did not turbo-charge globalisation, highlighting the dangers of under-strength teams. This experience informs the IOC’s determination that a cricket event in the Games must feature full-strength teams.
Cricket is already too late to make the initial sports programme for the 2024 Games. But after the IOC announces the hosts of the 2024 and 2028 Games in Lima in September the organising committee of the 2024 hosts – most probably Paris – will have the chance to propose additional events for that edition of the Games. They will be able to do so until the executive board meeting following the Tokyo Games in 2020, although cricket applying later would give off the impression of a lack of enthusiasm and, as such, reduce the sport’s chances of acceptance.
Were cricket included, space would need to be found for regional qualifiers. Logistics during the event – like the stadiums to use and the size of the grounds – could still be a challenge. Both Los Angeles and Paris have cricket stadiums, although they would need significant upgrading to host an Olympic event. Alternatively, as baseball is returning to the Games from 2020, it might be possible to share some of its grounds with cricket, even if these might have unusual boundary sizes.
“We continue to be open-minded about cricket becoming an Olympic sport and welcome further discussions on this issue between the IOC and the ICC,” said an ECB spokesperson. “A final decision on this is some way off and will not be guaranteed or simple to deliver. But we do have a duty to explore what is good for cricket.”
It has not always seemed thus. “I have every right to put my board’s interests first,” Giles Clarke, former ECB chairman, haughtily told the Death of A Gentleman film when asked why England long opposed the Games. Now England have changed their approach – abandoning the absurd pretence that the Olympics would necessitate cancelling an entire four-Test series, costing $160m – if India do the same, all 104 members of the ICC will be united. This remains far from certain given that India’s cricket politics makes British politics look a model of equanimity, but never have prospects looked so good.
In a Darwinian sporting age, whether cricket does make good on its plans to embrace the Games once and for all looms as emblematic of its true commitment – or not – to globalising the sport.