James Willstrop hoping for Olympics to recognise squash
World number one hopes for his sport's inclusion for the 2020 Games
World number one James Willstrop heaves a huge sigh of regret as he thinks back to this summer's London Olympics. He is sorry that his beloved sport failed to make the cut back in 2005 when the International Olympic Committee was deciding which new sports should come to the party.
"It was upsetting that we were not at the London Olympics, the world's biggest sporting occasion. It would have meant so much to be able to play in front of the cheering crowds but it was sad squash didn't get the recognition it deserves," said Willstrop, who is in town to defend his title at this week's Cathay Pacific Sun Hung Kai Financial Hong Kong Open.
Squash's failure to win the vote in 2005 at the IOC Congress in Singapore probably cost Team GB a couple of gold medals as Englishmen Willstrop and Nick Matthew are the top-two ranked players in the world and would have been favourites to win the men's singles and doubles matches.
But this memory has been pushed back to the inner recesses of the mind, as Willstrop and company - the women are in town too - focus on putting on a great show this week, as the Hong Kong Open has been earmarked as a test event by the IOC, with two observers assessing the sport.
Squash is up against baseball, softball, karate, wakeboarding, wushu, roller sports and sport climbing, all vying for one berth at the 2020 Olympics.
The Yorkshire-born Willstrop, 29, concurs that by the time 2020 rolls around, he would probably be too old to lift his graphite racket. This year's Olympics would have seen him in the prime of his life. But despite having missed out, Willstrop says he and his peers are pushing strongly for the sport's inclusion.
"It doesn't matter for me personally. I won't be around in 2020, only maybe as the team physio or carrying the water bottles. But I want this sport I love to be part of the Olympics and if it does get in, it will help lift the profile of the sport massively," Willstrop said.
At the 2005 IOC Congress, baseball and softball were ejected from the Olympics (their final appearance was Beijing 2008 with both missing from London 2012), but squash and karate, which won through the initial voting rounds, failed to obtain the IOC's two-thirds majority vote in the final count, which left the 2012 Olympic programme at 26 sports.
At its next Congress in 2009 in Copenhagen, golf and rugby sevens were voted in - the two-thirds majority system being changed to a simple majority - with IOC president Jacques Rogge saying they "brought extra value to the Games". Squash was out again.
"I don't know why we failed. All I know is that we deserve to be in the Olympics and that if we are in, the world's best players will turn up," Willstrop adds.
Played in 175 countries by more than 20 million people, it has been rated as the world's healthiest by Forbes magazine.
Unlike others such as football and basketball, an Olympic gold medal will be the sport's highest honour, and this will guarantee that the world's best turn up. The sport will also give opportunities for smaller nations like Malaysia - where Nicol David is the reigning women's world No1 - and Egypt the chance to win a Games medal.
"I watched the Olympics and one of my best moments was that night when Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis won medals for Great Britain. It was pretty amazing and I wished squash was also an Olympic sport. But sadly we missed out. I hope that will change for 2020," he added. The IOC will make its decision next year.