The Olympic Question
With the World Cup contracting and ECB’s aims to improve England’s 50 over fortunes at the expense of the County Championship, the international game has courted its share of controversies in recent weeks.
Both domestically and globally, there are concerns cricket is not maximising its potential.
One particular sticking point remains the idea of Olympic participation. A global event, watched by millions of people that reaches every corner of the globe and unlocks billions of pounds worth of funding for participants.
But the Olympics is also an event that takes place at the same time as the English domestic season, and removes an element of financial control from the ICC’s grasp – crucial points given the nature of cricket’s current governance.
ECB President Giles Clarke quickly dismissed the idea during an interview with Sam Collins for the documentary Death of a Gentleman. And on the surface you can understand the position Clarke and the ECB are taking.
Next years Olympics in Rio start on August 5th, concluding just under three weeks later on the 21st. A more prominent period in the English season you could not find. Summer holidays, summer weather (theoretically). Part of the favoured window for the T20 Blast should the tournament switch to a block format, and the games will ‘clash’ with two Test matches against Pakistan (as well as two One Day Internationals between Ireland and Pakistan).
While the 62-year old’s motives are permanently surrounded by cynicism, Clarke’s remonstration that it would cost the ECB millions ‘make sense’ in the light of the games current landscape. Not having a summer tour during this period would leave a large hole in the ECB’s finances through lost gate receipts and TV revenue.
There is no doubt, based on a very rudimentary application, adding cricket to the Olympics would cost one of the sports three guiding lights a lot of money. At least, in theory.
The idea of seeing cricket at the Olympics for the first time since 1900 is often spoken of in very broad terms, making it much easier to dismiss for the power players – India, England and Australia – in world cricket, regardless of what the other 102 nations the ICC cares for might want.
An apparent lack of willingness from the big three to even consider the suggestion harms both their reputation and the sport globally. What’s more, it presents an opening for those likes the Essel Group to try and squeeze in to.
If the ICC won’t help the sport expand in fledgling nations like China, the USA and even Afghanistan – one of the most improved sides of recent years – then eventually they will look for an alternative. They cannot be cowed in to submission by threats of India pulling out of tours, or that England won’t play an ODI against them, because none of those things happen right now.
Hypothetically, should the Essel Group form a body – lets call it the World Cricket Council for examples sake – and seek recognition from the IOC, interest of these small cricket outposts, but otherwise powerful nations, would surely spike.
China currently gets $30,000 per year from the ICC. Their cricket administrators are sure Olympic participation would unlock millions of dollars worth of government funding to them, as China continues its quest to impress through sport.
If the WCC had the backing of China and perhaps America, another minnow in cricket’s current pond, it’s hard to imagine the IOC won’t take notice. The economic clout of the two nations will always carry weight when dealing with such governing bodies.
The benefits are not purely financial – though the boost to a nations cricket program via government funding should speak for itself – with the exposure for both the sport and the participating nations of significant benefit.
Ireland and Afghanistan have made great strides in recent years, but few outside of existing cricket circles probably know this – there are few greater stories in world sport right now than the Afghans rise following the years of conflict there.
Likewise there will be those in Canada and the US completely unaware their nations even have a national team, let alone a fully fledged cricket program operating within their borders.
This is before we even discuss the idea of other viewers from ‘non traditional cricket countries’ getting to watch the sport.
A one to two week competition at the Olympics could provide a significant boost to the world game; but the objections to cricket at the Olympics are almost solely based on the impact it might have on the major Test nations.
A twenty20 tournament seems the most fitting idea. It condenses the game to a manageable format for new viewers, demonstrating the most explosive elements of the game whilst still retaining some of the sports greatest strengths – the tactical battles and in-game stories that develop.
The contest need not interfere heavily with the existing international schedule if that is a concern. Olympic football has effectively been an u23 tournament since 1992. Why couldn’t cricket adopt a similar approach?
Using current players, a Great Britain side comprising of the Curran brothers and David Willey as one of the ‘over age’ players would ensure strong representation from our little island. India, South Africa et al can do the same. The major nations would still be the front runners, the risk of losing face diminished and the chance to give some young stars invaluable tournament experience.
Of course this hypothetical Great Britain team does also highlight another potential issue.
It’s the England and Wales Cricket Board, co-operation with Scotland would be required (so to speak). More importantly, it would likely mean the West Indies cannot compete as a collective. A major name in world cricket divided up in to its parts again – each a proud nation, but weaker for the division.
These small obstacles are not insurmountable, but would still need to be addressed.
The elephant in the room remains however. An elephant not unlike that which the IOC fight with the NHL every few years, when talk of the world’s best ice hockey players featuring at the Winter Olympics rears its head.
The ICC, like the NHL, will want its cut. Right now it, or its members, hold all the cards. TV deals are struck by individual boards. The same cannot be said at the Olympics, meaning the billions of dollars in revenue the event rakes in will bypass the ICC.
One of the most famous quotes from Death of a Gentleman came from journalist Gideon Haigh – does cricket make money to exist? Or does cricket exist to make money?
Money seems to drive so many aspects of the game now, a tournament that contributes nothing directly is unappealing. But it is the indirect benefits that should be of interest. The ability to further gain ground in major economic nations like China, the chance to showcase the sport to the world. Things which will benefit cricket as a whole in the long term.
If cricket cannot find a way to bring new interest to the game, Test cricket will continue to wobble and the T20 bubble bursting could spell ruin for some.
The myopic attitude those running the sport apply to the Olympics does no one any favours. Major hurdles to participation there are, but none is so great it cannot be conquered.
The greater good needs to prevail here. Cricket cannot remain the preserve of ten Test nations (three if your cynical). The second most popular sport in the world needs to go truly global.
And it may need the Olympics to do so.