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Cricket in the Olympics - More challenges than gains for stakeholders

Questions remain on cricket's global acceptability, as the LA Games will be a six-team affair in both men's and women's events, making it smaller than the 14-team Asian Games and the 16-team T20 World Cup.

Cricket in the Olympics - More challenges than gains for stakeholders
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Central Broward Park, a cricket stadium in Florida, hosted the India-West Indies T20I match.

By

Sudipta Biswas

Published: 17 Oct 2023 11:32 AM GMT

Cricket has taken a huge stride by officially becoming an Olympic sport.

After 123 years since England defeated France - a team made of only breakaway English players - in a one-off match at the Paris Olympics in 1900, cricket is back in the Olympics.

The excitement across the subcontinent, the nerve centre of the sport, is palpable as cricket has been approved to feature in the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028 (LA28) along with four newer sports.

The biggest protagonist behind cricket's annexation to the grandest sporting spectacle in the world is the Los Angeles Olympics Organising Committee. It wanted to ride on the sport's widespread popularity in South East Asia to reap financial rewards.

Since it officially won the bid to host the Olympics, the LA28 Organising Committee has done extensive research on the inclusion of an international sport besides a few American sports - a usual practice for the host countries.

Determining factor: Popularity of cricket

T20 cricket's overwhelming popularity and acceptance by the wider population of the world, especially in Europe, has been the foremost reason for LA proposing cricket to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for inclusion in the Olympic Games.

The numerics T20 cricket boasts is staggering; it cannot be overlooked. The sheer popularity of the Indian Premier League, one of the world's richest leagues, and the success of the inaugural Major League Cricket were also determining factors.

The Olympic Games, as an event, has never been financially rewarding for the host country. It has been a major concern for the Games' stakeholders and a threat to the ethos of the Olympic Movement.

Hence, the LA organising committee stood firm on cricket from the onset. Their move was also backed by the IOC Executive Board last week, with President Thomas Bach himself announcing the good news.

Cricket - the most popular sport in the Indian subcontinent with more than 2.5 billion people following it earnestly - has been termed as 'fast and appealing' by the LA Games panel at the 141st Congress of the IOC Executive Board in Mumbai.

The sport also has a global icon in Virat Kohli, the third most followed athlete in the world on social media behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. "My friend here Virat (Kohli) is the third-most followed athlete in the world with 340 million followers on social media. That is more than Le Bron James, Tom Brady, and Tiger Woods combined," said Niccolo Campriani, the three-time Olympic gold medallist turned LA Sports Director.

Cricket in the Olympics was also a strategic push by the LA organising committee, with the USA being the co-host for the 2024 T20 World Cup.

With the International Cricket Council (ICC) has long been pushing for cricket's inclusion in the Olympics and trying to reach newer grounds, especially corporate-rich America, it is now a win-win situation for all stakeholders, with IOC, LA Organising Committee, and ICC looking to grab a pie of cricket's large financial cake.

"This is the ultimate win-win-win for the LA28, the IOC, and the cricket community as cricket will be showcased on a global stage to grow beyond the traditional cricket countries," Campriani added.

According to various estimates, the value of the Olympic media rights is expected to go up to $160 million after cricket's inclusion in the LA28. At present, India's existing Olympic broadcast rights are reportedly worth $20 million for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

It was because of these dynamics the question of cricket's lesser acceptance outside Commonwealth countries did not receive much traction. Only two members of IOC's 99-member panel voted against cricket.

With the blitz of T20 cricket to savour and a shorter version to suit the Olympics' two-week time span, cricket is finally part of the Olympics.

Truly global?

Five years from now, at LA28, the sport will fulfill its long-standing dream of becoming a truly 'global' sport.

But questions remain on cricket's global acceptability, as the LA Games will be a six-team affair in both men's and women's events, making it smaller than the 14-team Asian Games in Hangzhou and the 16-team T20 World Cup held in the UAE in 2022.

IOC should be wary of this gravitate. In the past, its effort to ride on football's sheer popularity in Under 23 form did not break a path. As it turned out, football in the Olympics has never been as attractive as the FIFA World Cup or European Championship.

Moreover, cricket, despite being one of the oldest team sports, has failed to break newer grounds. Of ICC's 108 members, the majority - 96 - countries have still been struggling to build themselves as quality competitors due to a lack of resources and too few players. They do not play World Cups routinely either. The West Indies - the closest region to the USA with a rich legacy in cricket - is not part of the ongoing 50-overs World Cup in India since the sport has gone downhill in the Caribbean.

The organising committee and ICC will also have to ensure that it is not a lopsided affair in Los Angeles. At the recently concluded Asian Games, a farce was presented to the audience, with the gold medal being handed to the higher-ranked side in a rain-marred men's team final, hurting the sport's image and prospects of the lower-ranked team, which made it to the final beating a higher-ranked side.

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