In trying to keep up with the times, traditional Olympic Games now a thing of the past
Striving to engage more youthful demographics, and dollars, the IOC is going in some vastly different directions
Some will blame it on golf. Others will go back even further and blame it on sports like biathlon. But wherever the blame lies, the simple truth is that the Olympic Games are becoming basically indistinguishable from any sort of traditional sports gathering and the divide will only get bigger. Better get used to it, even if you don’t think surfing, skateboarding or rock climbing are Olympic sports because they are going to be around much longer than you or I.
This week the International Olympic Committee voted to accord provisional recognition to Muay Thai and cheerleading, soliciting little more than a yawn. Gone was the outrage and flummoxed indignation when golf was added to the 2016 Games in Rio.
It was merely one more step in an effort by the IOC to “encourage innovation in the Olympic programme”. Both Muay Thai and cheerleading will now receive funding from the IOC and be able to apply to be included in future games.
For Muay Thai, the inclusion is hardly a surprise. Combat sports are now wildly popular amongst the youthful demographic, far more so than traditional boxing, and there is a long history and noble heritage that gives the sport the type of gravitas events like skateboarding may lack.
On the surface, cheerleading may seem frivolous and a bit of a stretch to be classified as a sport. But watch some of the modern teams, most notably at the US collegiate level, and the athleticism is every bit as demanding as the games they are cheering on.
According to the IOC’s sports director, there is a “high youth appeal in cheerleading”, and this is crucial in deciding what sports get Olympic classification going forward. For a non-profit organisation, the IOC is very much profit driven and a large part of that is recognising emerging demographics.
The baby boomers are on pensions now while the affluent millennials are coming into more and more disposable income. It’s just good business to cater to that group and little surprise that for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, three of the five sports added are inextricably linked to youthful passions.
Skateboard, sports climbing and surfing are in the millennial wheelhouse while the other two, baseball/softball and karate, have even made strides in broadening their youthful appeal.
The Summer Olympics are still going to be primarily about swimming in week one and athletics in week two. But that may be the only thing you will recognise about the Games going forward.
There is, however, an even bigger elephant in the room that may completely alter the modern Olympic movement if and when it is included. Electronic sports, e-sports, claims to be the fastest growing sport among millennials with an annual increase in revenues over the past few years of 25 per cent.
Depending on who you listen to, there can be at any one time more than 100 million spectators online watching an event. Truth in sports marketing is often blurred, but one fact is incontrovertible; revenue for e-sports in 2016 is expected to top US$500 million, up from US$400 million in 2015.
Of course, everything is to scale here. With revenues from European football at US$30 billion in this past year and the NFL at over US$11 billion, e-sports is still not the big leagues. But its growth is undeniable and strictly from a business perspective there is more money in e-gaming than in surfing, skateboarding and rock climbing combined. That is not lost on the IOC or the people in the e-sports industry.
“The Olympics have a higher purpose, inspiring and motivating the youth of the world to be committed to excellence, patience and perseverance,” said Bobby Kittick, CEO of gamemaking giant Activision Blizzard INC. “There’s no good reason why e-sports competition shouldn’t be included.”
The Korean-based E-Sports Federation also announced this year that it would apply to the IOC for recognition of it as a sport.
But, on the surface at least, the inclusion of e-sports would seem to cross something of a competitive divide. While there is no doubt that e-gamers have some athletic skills, it is still very much more machine than man and what is to stop Formula One from wanting to become an Olympic sport as well?
There is also the endless bloodshed in the most popular games being at odds with the Olympian ideals. But isn’t boxing also inherently bloody and violent?
One thing is for certain, the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger”, is becoming more passé by the minute. And you thought golf was the ultimate bastardisation of the Olympic movement.