Olympic Dreams

Let’s look back for a brief second, upon the news last month that squash is finally joining the Olympic Games. It had been the end of a long road: the first mention in the historical record was in June 1947 in Stockholm where squash pushed to join the 1952 Games award to Helsinki (five of the losing six cities bidding to host the Games were in the U.S.).

But the real effort started In 1986 when the IOC recognized squash as a sport, and national governing bodies around the world started joining their national Olympic committees. It will have been nine Games (Barcelona in 1992 to Paris in 2024) that squash failed to join before we see a squash ball in the air in Los Angeles in July 2028.

I thought of all the people who worked behind the scenes on those nine Games. Colleagues like Hazel and Tom Jones who led the push for a Pan American federation and inclusion in the Pan American Games, key steps along the way. (We saw the effects of that effort this week with the U.S. sweeping the women’s individual tournament at the 2023 Pan Am Games in Santiago.) And Mike Lee, the sports communications guru who squash hired in 2011 to get us into Tokyo 2020. Mike, ebullient and opinionated, sadly died in September 2018 at the age of sixty-one, and I am sure he would have been so pleased to see us finally triumph.

So what does the next five years look like? Here are some possibilities:

—The over-under on players switching nationalities is 9.5. With only two male and two female players allowed in the thirty-two player draws per country, players lower down the rankings perhaps will switch nations in order to qualify. Nation-switching has happened over the decades (see: Peter Nicol in 2001 from Scotland to England; Natalie Grinham in 2008 from Australia to the Netherlands; Mohamed ElShorbagy last year from Egypt to England), usually for reasons of money and support and sometimes because of a feud with a national federation. Now the switch will occur because a player wants to make LA28.

—Some might be from Egypt. Everyone is talking about how hard this will be for them, with twenty-one men and twenty-nine women ranked in the top hundred right now—if the Olympics were to occur today, only four of those fifty players would be there. But pity also those players from Great Britain. Although Team GB has been the norm since the modern Olympics began in 1896, in squash players typically compete for Wales or Scotland or England or Northern Ireland. Thus, Team GB has fifteen women and nineteen men ranked right now in the top hundred and they will have to scrabble over just four spots rather than sixteen.

—A lot of players now in their thirties spoke at the 2023 U.S. Open about hanging around for five more years in order to play in the Olympics. So expect a rash of retirements after the Games. The average retirement age for pro squash players has been in the mid-thirties. The Olympics will definitely push that back.

—At the same time, expect more players turning pro and joining the tour from less traditionally strong nations. Right now China and Russia have no one ranked in the top hundred—I’d be surprised if that is still the case in five years. Nations that have at least one player ranked in the top hundred are twenty-five for the men (including Team GB); and twenty-three for the women. About half of those countries have just one player ranked in the top hundred, and so LA28 might catalyze more funding to help those nations, especially formerly hegemonic powerhouses like Australia and Pakistan. More courts, more access, more tournaments, more coaches, more attention, more, more, more—all good for the game.

—There will be a fascinating scramble in the year leading up to the spring of 2028. Players will be trying to garner as many ranking points as possible, to either become one of the two highest-ranked players on the PSA tour from their country and/or to be ranked in the top one hundred (the cut-off for automatic qualification). Thus, both platinum and bronze-level tournaments will suddenly have an extra level of drama.

—It appears there might be qualifying tournaments for each continent in 2028 to help fill out the draws of thirty-two. It will be open to players ranked below one hundred. Those events will also be incredibly exciting.