Mission 2028: What does cricket’s road to the Olympics look like?

August 22, 2021

Cricket is officially making its push for the Los Angeles Games, but it has to hurdle many practical and logistical challenges on the way there

Mission 2028: What does cricket’s road to the Olympics look like?

A day after Tokyo finally turned off the lights on an Olympic Games that had caused anxiety before it began but was met with gratitude and relief at its end, the ICC made an announcement. Cricket would make a formal push to be a part of the LA 2028 Olympic programme with ICC chair Greg Barclay stating that, “we see the Olympics as a part of cricket’s long-term future.”We’ve been here before - in 2016, when Sachin Tendulkar turned up in Rio and a year later when India made it to the 2017 Women’s World Cup final and thoughts of what Olympics exposure could do for the sport resurfaced.

This time it appears the grand project has a specific pathway and destination: the formation of a five-strong ICC working group to make a pitch for Los Angeles 2028 and cricket’s much-desired US audience. Barclay’s statement was followed by BCCI secretary Jay Shah telling the Hindustan Times, “The BCCI and the ICC are on the same page as far as participation in the Olympics is concerned.” Given the BCCI’s previous mixed feelings about mega events and multidisciplinary Games - sending a team to the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games team was followed by ducking out of the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou - could this be progress? Especially as India Women will be competing in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games next year? Perhaps, but Olympic waters are as unfamiliar as they have always been.

Whenever “cricket” and “Olympics” appear together, opposite sides dismiss the idea with equal vehemence. That cricket is not a global sport. That its now three World Cups are majors enough and it doesn’t need this fourth Grand Bauble. Those in between wonder how everything will come together. How many countries will compete? The gossip is saying eight, which sounds like nonsense, because the Olympics are not an ICC Champions Trophy-scale event. Does Test or ODI status mean a free pass to qualification for the T20 Olympic event? That would be very far from the Olympian ideal. Wait a minute, will it be a four-hour long T20 game? Or the Hundred? In the past T10 has also shown up as an option. Are there enough practice and match pitches in Los Angeles?

This is a good time also to remember that there is no room service in the Olympic Village. It’s just thousands of athletes bunking in spartan rooms and queueing up for breakfast between anxious weightlifters and impatient judoka. It could be each to their own in bags off the bus. Okay, now I’m just being mean. Particularly after having spoken to VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh, who were part of the Indian team in the 1998 Commonwealth Games squad and absolutely loved the experience. They were delighted not to be in Toronto with the Sahara Cup squad and they didn’t care that they were two or three to a room in an apartment in a tower.

Laxman described dining hall scenes like being at a tennis match, head swivelling from left to right watching the elite from other sports go by, chatting with superstar track athletes from the Caribbean and others on the Indian contingent about their lives. Harbhajan treasures the gear and kit he was given from the Games representing a larger Indian team than he ever had, the memory of marching at the opening ceremony under the national flag and being one among a giant sea of athletes from other sports every day. “It was like a carnival and an education,” Laxman says, “It widened your worldview.”

One way to study cricket’s current Olympic proposal is by looking at what the sport looks like to the world outside its bubble. As far as multi-nation events go, in terms of media-rights value, the ICC Cricket World Cup is the third most valuable global rights property after the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. US broadcaster NBC bought Olympic broadcast rights for 2021 through 2032 for $7.65 billion. FIFA’s rights for its 2018 and 2022 World Cups are reckoned to be around $1.85 billion.

The ICC has not released the official figures of the sale of its 2015-2023 media rights bundle, other than saying it was “significantly in excess” of the $1.1 billion for 2007-2015. The figure from the market ranges between $1.8-1.98 billion for its five major events. Those are serious numbers determined by the size of the 1.3 billion Indian audience, in a region that shares with its South Asian neighbours (just over 500 million more) an enormous appetite for cricket and, coincidentally, a spotty record at the Olympics. Who knows what a post-2032 Olympic rights package would look like with cricket on its roster?

The criteria required to get onto the Olympics programme, according to a 2018 document states it must be a widely practised sport with an international federation. Pre-2007, those were specific numbers - played by men in at least 75 countries, four continents, and by women in 40 countries. Today “widely practiced” is just one of the factors. When Tokyo 2020 introduced its four new sports (skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing, karate) and reintroduced baseball/softball - the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) official announcement said that the other factors assessed were: “impact on gender equality”, “youth appeal” and “legacy value”. Plus the “cost and complexity” factor - whether the new sport could use existing infrastructure - along with the number of “events” and athletes the sport would feature, whether it was in proportion with the number of medals being added.

In cricket that means two disciplines - one for men and one for women - two gold medals and the number of participants could be at the very least (going by that ridiculous figure of eight countries) 240. Those are not the best RoI (Return on Involvement) figures, particularly when the Olympics has officially put a cap of 10,500 on the numbers of athletes it would like to field at the Games and 310 medal “events”. But there exists an amount of flexibility depending on the host organisers - Tokyo, for example, had 338 events and 11,656 athletes. - and part of the IOC’s mission is to involve greater engagement with professional leagues so that every sport can have its best athletes show up at the Games.

The ICC meanwhile has been cognisant of its expansion of the game outside traditional territories - and the fact that T20 is being seen as perfect for a global audience. In June this year, it announced that the ODI World Cup, from 2027, will feature 14 teams rather than ten and the T20 World Cup, from 2024, will feature 20 teams (up from 16).

Plus, the impetus given to women’s cricket outside of its Commonwealth base will also find approval with the IOC’s commitment for gender balance at the world’s biggest sporting event. Being under the Olympic umbrella means additional funding for the ICC as the sport’s international federation, as well as for the cricketing programmes of the ICC’s many smaller nations via their country’s Olympic associations. The ICC has ticked the other IOC boxes: it is a signatory of the WADA anti-doping code and cricket is on the IOC’s list of recognised international federations, but then so is tug of war, flying disc and life-saving.

Cricket’s only appearance at the Olympics in Paris in 1900 featured two teams, Great Britain (comprising the Devon and Somerset Wanderers Club), and France (comprising staffers from the British embassy in Paris.) According to The Complete Book of the Olympics (2008 edition), a French newspaper dissed the sport, saying it, “appears monotonous and without colour to the uninitiated”. A British report complained, “The French temperament is too excitable to enjoy the game and no Frenchman can be persuaded to play more than once.”

Much has changed about cricket since then, but Harbhajan wonders whether cricket’s numbers are enough for it to be Olympian: “You can’t be just eight teams vying for medals and call yourself Olympic champions.” Laxman says the time is right. “I think it’s worth giving it a shot... cricket is a global sport and in some countries it is a really sought-after sport, but for it to have a significance, compared to athletics or soccer, I think that can only happen if you are at the Games. There’s 200-plus countries at the Olympics and imagine them watching you there. It will be so good for the sport - and, on behalf of the players, I can say they will do anything to get that medal.” —Cricinfo

Mission 2028: What does cricket’s road to the Olympics look like?