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Scotland at forefront of squash revival

THE Hong Kong Open which concludes on Sunday against the backdrop of Victoria Harbour is much more than just another stop on the international squash circuit.

Squash is included on the programme for the 2014 Commonwealth Games which will take place in Glasgow
Squash is included on the programme for the 2014 Commonwealth Games which will take place in Glasgow

The International Olympic Committee is there, inspecting the showcase tournament as the sport renews attempts for Olympic inclusion in 2020.

It lost out to rugby sevens and golf when it pitched for a place on the 2016 programme for Rio de Janeiro, having previously failed to be included this year in London. Now, it is one of eight sports chasing a place. Baseball and softball (last played in Beijing) are fighting for restoration. Climbing, karate, roller sport, wakeboarding and wushu are the other contenders. They are due to make presentations to the IOC programmes commission over two days next month, with the final decision due next year, when one sport will be added.

Baseball and softball have amalgamated, and are attempting to guarantee the support of Major League. Failure to secure the best players will not help their Olympic cause..

Squash is played in 175 countries by more than 20m people, and Forbes magazine rated it the world's healthiest sport, but the IOC considered the game needed to raise its media profile and become more television-friendly. The world body choked back its disappointment and has worked hard on this.

Already a Commonwealth Games core sport (IOC president Jacques Rogge was a spectator in Delhi) and included on the 2014 programme in Glasgow, it's hard to envisage a better time for developing squash in Scotland where the sport failed to capitalise on a boom in the 1970s.

Poor court utilisation, believed to be around 20%, has led to Scottish courts being used for soft-play areas, dance studios and converted into climbing walls. Ironically, a squash court conversion – a three-bedroom house in Oban – is currently on the market at a time when Scotland is in the forefront of court revival.

We appear to be leading the world in development and growth at age-group level at a time when other national and international bodies are more focused on staging major events – though without these the IOC are unlikely to be convinced.

Scottish Squash and Racketball Ltd, the national body, have devised Racket WALL. Last week, they received confirmation of the registration of their court's international trademark. There are hopes that this may take off globally with the long-term prospect of licensing revenue for SSRL. There is also a minimal-cost, easily-stored, single-wall mini version which they are attempting to introduce to primary schools.

Their chief executive, John Dunlop, believes rebound racket sport is a hugely untapped market. "Bashing a ball against a wall is as primordial an instinct as kicking one," he believes.

Racket sport is seen as a basic starter for squash but does not require traditional courts. A conventional squash court in an existing building costs around £55,000, but Racket WALL courts cost as little as £3000 and can be erected anywhere.

The Boys Brigade Centre at Carronshore in Larbert opened one last week, while Easterhouse Phoenix are building two almost full-size courts with MDF walls in their Glasgow facility at a total cost of around £3000. All funding came from within the sport and a few commercial sponsors: Tunnocks, Dalziels of Bellshill, and Newmarket Paint.

"As we have all the drawings, the manifest and costs, we can recreate this anywhere," says Dunlop. "We already have interest from an Edinburgh councillor who is keen on doing something similar."

And, whisper it, a woman in Oban.

All 32 Scottish local authorities have received copies of the SSRL development plan ahead of a funding proposal going to sportscotland. The governing body already is in discussion with 15 of these and hopes to interest more.

The newly published development plan is innovative and shows novel lateral thinking in addressing issues as it attempts to attract new targeted demographics but Olympic recognition would almost certainly attract more funding.

At global level, Narayana Ramachandran, the World Squash Federation president, has acknowledged the need for a new image. Recent changes include a new scoring system, extra referees to eliminate disputes, and video replays inside venues and glass floors.

The game is more televisual with new high- definition cameras which can pick up the fast-moving ball; and improved glass-court technology now means there are no struts to obscure vision.

Ramachandran believes he now has a product he can successfully sell to the IOC.

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