Trying to stay connected with Gen Next

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Trying to stay connected with Gen Next

In the attempt to remain relevant to the next generation, the Olympics are becoming a less exclusive club.

More sports were proposed last week for inclusion in the Summer Games in Tokyo in 2020: baseball, softball, karate, surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing.

The International Olympic Committee’s powerful executive board, which includes President Thomas Bach, must approve that list in December before the sports are put to a final vote next year, prior to the start of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But make no mistake: The odds are greatly in favour of all the candidates’ making the cut for 2020.

This was no unilateral proposal from the Tokyo organising committee. Instead it came after plenty of consultation with the IOC leadership. What the Tokyo organisers surely wanted most were sports like baseball, softball and karate with deep roots in Japanese culture and in which Japanese can contend for medals.

What the IOC leadership wanted most was a credible youth movement, even at the risk of overloading a Summer Olympic programme already creaking under the combined load of traditional mainstays (track and field, swimming and gymnastics), global juggernauts (soccer and basketball), niche diversions (trampoline, and fencing) and downright oddities (modern pentathlon).

The package of rule changes dubbed Agenda 2020 that was passed last year created the possibility of a more flexible Olympic programme, and last Monday’s announcement proves Bach meant exactly what he advocated.

Adding just surfing or sport climbing or skateboarding would have created a novelty ripple, like adding BMX racing in 2008. Adding all three at one time risks going over the top but sends a much stronger message and is certainly more bold and generation-shifting than simply reinstating baseball and softball, which were dropped after the 2008 games, and adding yet another martial art in karate.

“This is really a very clever decision,” said Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association. “There is the ultimate sport for young people on the beach and the ocean, which is surfing. There is the ultimate urban youth sport, which is skateboarding. And there is right now, the coolest, fastest-exploding outdoor sport, which is sport climbing, so they have the beach culture covered, the urban culture covered and the outdoor culture covered, which are all key pieces of the youth culture.”

ISA research estimates that there are about 35 million surfers worldwide (2 million in Japan), with 60 percent of those under age 20. Research received by the IOC estimates that skateboarding has more than 50 million participants globally with a large majority under 18.

Until now, the Winter Games have been quicker to cater to youthful tastes, adding snowboarding in 1998 and more recently slopestyle. But the Summer Games are already bursting at the seams, and what is missing so far are cuts. Adding sports to the Olympics is a much less emotional process than removing them, as made clear by the uproar generated by wrestling’s banishment from the Rio Games and the successful push to reinstate it.

There are already 28 sports inside the rings, including two new arrivals, rugby sevens and golf, for Rio in 2016. But there is no serious suggestion for now of tossing anybody out of the club for 2020 to make room for the next wave.

Instead the IOC plans to allow a maximum of 500 athletes from the five new sports in 2020. That will come on top of its cap for existing sports of approximately 10,500. The new sports would add 18 extra events.

“We learned very much late in the process that they had created this cap of 500 athletes,” said Robert Fasulo, the long-time consultant who is advising Aguerre. “For me, a very clear part of the IOC strategy was to avoid a big fight with the existing federations.”

This seems an untenable long-term strategy if the Olympics are to remain manageable. But at least for 2020, this inclusive strategy should keep the stakeholders happy, even if it will only make it harder to command the spotlight with 33 sports and well over 300 medal events packed into 17 days.

The new candidates are certainly not the ones complaining about overcrowding in the marketplace.

In the last decade, sport climbing — contested on artificial rock walls indoors or outdoors — has grown exponentially. It now has an estimated 6 million registered participants worldwide and another 25 million unregistered, with climbing walls existing in more than 140 countries.

At MetroRock North, a climbing gym in Newburyport about 40 miles north of Boston, general manager Bryan Rafferty has seen engagement levels soar in his five years in his post.

But he is convinced Olympic status could take climbing to another level: both for those in the industry and for those trying and generally failing to make a living as professional climbers.

“They are some of the most talented and incredible athletes on the planet,” Rafferty said. “Physically what they do is insane, and most of them are still scraping by on next to nothing.”


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