THE whole structure of the Olympic Games is under increasingly intense scrutiny.
Is it time for radical change? Thomas Bach, recently-appointed president of the International Olympic Committee, has already sought a review of the programme. There will be a report on Olympic Agenda 2020 in Monaco at an extraordinary IOC session in December.
Bach indicated last summer that if his presidential campaign was successful, he would like to rethink the sports programme which he described as a "jigsaw puzzle".
Loading article content
He wants to remain within current competitor numbers, but said "flexibility" was essential to maintain Olympic "sustainability". At the time there was uproar over the potential exclusion of wrestling from the Olympics. It survived, but the clamour for inclusion by less traditional sports is loud, and growing. They include climbing, karate, roller sports, squash, wakeboarding and wushu. Baseball and softball made a united bid for re-inclusion last year but failed.
With 41 sports, the Summer Games are increasingly unwieldy, but there are just 15 winter ones. Transferring some of these to winter would make sense and give the chance to embrace other sports. At present this is constrained by the movement's charter which insists winter sports be on snow or ice, but Bach is on record as saying: "The Olympic charter is not set in stone. We have to evolve, adapt to modern times."
There's the rub. If we can have a Winter Olympics in a summer resort (Sochi) why not rebrand traditional summer sport for winter? It's a price sports would undoubtedly pay for Olympic status.
Snowboading was introduced in 1998 and the first winner, Ross Rebagliati, was briefly stripped of the title having tested positive for marijuana before being reinstated. Since then there has been an explosion of "street sports" in the Winter Games. Twelve events (three mixed, four men's, five women's) made their Olympic debut in Sochi, with slopestyle arguably the most spectacular.
Christophe Dubi, who will take over as IOC executive director this summer, spoke in a post-Sochi interview of the need to reshuffle the programme more quickly. He said the competitive programme would be regularly reviewed, "to make sure it remains relevant . . ."
He went on: "Of course, we need to preserve our history. At the same time we have to remain relevant and make sure that we capture new audience as well."
His comments hint strongly at the shape of Olympics to come. The forthcoming review will give the movement the chance to assess sports which can be added, and how quickly. This could include scrapping of the current seven-year waiting period for new sports.
Successful products must evolve, and the Olympics, one of the world's most successful brands, is surely no different. Sports certainly evolve and change. Golf, in the Olympics in 1900 and 1904, was then axed but it is a very different game, of far wider appeal, which will return in 2016. Rugby, last staged in 1924 (the US are reigning champions) will return in sevens form in Rio.
Last December, shortly after his election as president of the International Cycling Union, the Englishman Brian Cookson said he was campaigning for cyclocross to be included on the winter programme. This week, he suggested that track cycling could also become a Winter Olympic discipline and that judo and other combat sports could move, as could badminton.
We might also consider the restoration of cross country, which was in three Summer Olympics before being excluded after near fatalities in 1924. The temperature in Paris that day had risen to more than 40°. The course, over stone paths covered in knee-high thistles and weeds, led past an energy plant belching noxious fumes. Finland, headed by Paavo Nurmi, won the team title, but their last counter, Heikke Liimatainen, took more than two minutes to cover the final 30 metres. Only 13 of the 38 starters finished, and just one of five GB runners.
England's Arthur Sewell was in sight of the finish but headed the wrong way. When redirected, he collided with another runner and both failed to finish. On the course, men were overcome by heatstroke and vomiting, and hours after, the Red Cross were still searching for missing runners. Nurmi, who won by 85 seconds, had taken gold in the 1500 and 5000m two days earlier, and enhanced a reputation as an iron-man by winning the 3000m team race the next day.
Restoring cross country to the Games would make sense. The sport has been marginalised since the annual world championships became biennial in 2011. There is the chance to reshape the Olympics this year, and reshape sport. Perhaps it is time.