Hope springs eternal in squash's bid to join the Olympic family
Players and officials keep their fingers crossed after IOC head promises another review
There is a glimmer of hope in the eyes of Sarah Fitz-Gerald. She is a believer again - just like the rest of the squash fraternity in Hong Kong this week, reviving the dream of achieving Olympic status in 2020.
The bounce is back in squash. After being let down by the International Olympic Committee, which chose to reinstate wrestling rather than keep its promise to bring in a new sport into the Olympic family, the squash world has perked up again after new IOC president Thomas Bach hinted at the possibility the number of Olympic sports may be increased for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
"Yes, there is hope again," says Australian five-time world champion Fitz-Gerald, who was part of the World Squash Federation delegation that went to Buenos Aires in September to bid for inclusion in the Olympics.
"For Thomas Bach to say these things, obviously he believes that more sports in the Olympics are achievable. He has hinted at making changes and being new, he probably wants to make changes and give purpose to his presidency," added Fitz-Gerald, widely regarded as one of the great women players.
Following an audience with Pope Francis, the German - who took over from Jacques Rogge - suggested the limit of 28 sports at the Olympics might be reviewed.
"We've started to study the possible procedural changes. Two limits are insurmountable - the number of athletes taking part and the minimum number of fixed stadiums required from the cities. The rest is under discussion. Currently, we're at 28 sports, or better, federations, taking part," Bach told Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"Perhaps we won't have to cancel disciplines to increase and keep the number of athletes fixed but just reduce the quota. First, the concept has to be clarified and then we'll act. We can go from 26 to 27, 28, 29 or 30 sports.
"The [Olympic] charter can also be amended, also removing the limitation of the choice to be made seven years before. There can be more elasticity. We'll talk to Ricci Bitti, chairman of the ASOIF [Association of Summer Olympic International Federations] and a very open and constructive man, about it. Perhaps a change can be made with a view to Tokyo 2020."
These words have given a fresh infusion of belief to squash.
"What he is saying is he will reduce the number of athletes and make room for other sports. This has given us renewed hope," says Heather Deayton, vice-president of the World Squash Federation.
"There is also the possibility the number of disciplines in some sports can be cut, which could mean that instead of [Michael] Phelps winning eight [swimming] gold medals, he might get the chance to win five. This will create room for other athletes and other sports."
World number one Nicol David of Malaysia, hunting for her eighth consecutive Hong Kong Open title today, said: "My fingers are crossed again. We were the new sport among those who went to Buenos Aires for the final selection having been shortlisted already, and all this talk of adding new sports gives us a realistic chance of making it."
The IOC initially cut wrestling from its programme, but this led to a clamour for the sport - which has been in every Olympics, and was one of the original disciplines in the ancient Games - to be reinstated. Wrestling, softball, baseball and squash were shortlisted from among eight sports for the final countdown in Buenos Aires.
"It was sort of a lost cause. We knew we were up against it with wrestling being quite powerful," said Fitz-Gerald, who has won a record 60 titles including the gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. "We were told by a number of IOC members our presentation was fantastic … we knew the IOC had stated they would take on a new sport and we were the only new sport there.
"But to finally not be chosen was disappointing. We had an amazing couple of days and our presentation was really good but it wasn't to be. There is always that glimmer of hope but it didn't work out. I remember everyone went quiet and we just sat there. We had to take it on the chin."
Bach's overture - maintaining the number of athletes at 10,500 but perhaps reducing quotas and even disciplines within sports - has put a smile back in squash. England's world number two Laura Massaro said: "This is good news and hopefully something good comes out of it. It will be a huge shot in the arm, especially for our younger athletes if squash makes it for the Tokyo Games in 2020."
It is believed Bach has talked about adding more sports so as to give softball and baseball, which have now come together as one bid, the chance to win back their place in time for Tokyo. With baseball's popularity in Japan, Bach will earn kudos if he can manage to convince the IOC executive board, which meets on Tuesday in Lausanne, that this is the right step to take. Fitz-Gerald, 45, is well aware that a lot of work remains in front for squash.
"The president of the World Squash Federation [Narayana Ramachandran] will be talking to the IOC.
"If that door is open a little bit, he is going to put his foot firmly in. All we can do is to be in the right place at the right time and grab that chance if it is there with both hands.
"There are other sports also holding on as well, especially those that went to Buenos Aires along with us - softball and baseball. But we have a good chance. Squash only needs room for 64 athletes and something like 12 to 20 officials. We are not a big delegation and it will make sense to include us.
"Why? because we are in 185 countries, we are a global sport, we have equal male and female participation, we are the only racquet sport not in [the Olympics], we have a long and proud history and right now we have a bunch of different nations who have won the world championship, not dominated by one particular country," Fitz-Gerald said.
"We have done everything the IOC has wanted. Television is better and we are on an all-glass court. The sport is more spectator-friendly and we have changed the scoring. We have done everything that is required of us."