July 19, 2005

Diamond Cutters

Well, I'm back from vacation. Two weeks in Beautiful British Columbia are good for the soul. Unfortunately I was away from my computer during a very busy week, when the IOC held its 117th session.

The first order of business was to select the host city for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and London was chosen in an "upset" against Paris. There was the usual orgy of excess. I'll write more on that later.

The more interesting news from Singapore concerned the vote on the sports programme for 2012. I've written a lot on that subject in the past few months. On May 28, in particular, I made the following prediction:

If I was going to place bets on the outcome of the vote, I would guess that softball is going down, and baseball will probably be dragged out with it by the most backwards kind of "gender-equity" reasoning. I predict that all of the non-team sports will survive, but it will be a close call for modern pentathlon and badminton.

So, let's just get this out of the way: Ahem. I was right. If any of you placed actual wagers on this outcome, you can send my share of the winnings to P.O. Box …

My post also included some quantitative analysis by sport, where I made a crude prediction of the number of votes that each sport would receive. I would love to be able to show you a comparison of the predicted and actual vote totals, but I can't. That's because the IOC has decided that the actual number of votes received by any sport is super-top-secret:

Not even the IOC members or sports federations will learn the totals. Rogge said the figures will be seen only by an independent official, who will send the results by sealed envelope to an IOC notary in Lausanne, Switzerland. [IOC President Jacques] Rogge will only open the envelope in the case of a voting dispute. (SI.com)

So we won't ever know how close it was for badminton, or modern pentathlon, or anybody else; all we know is that baseball and softball failed to gain a majority of the votes. The SI.com article goes on to say that Canadian IOC member Dick Pound shares my opinion of this secrecy (it sucks). Rogge points out that the procedure was requested by the IFs themselves, to avoid embarrassment for sports that fared poorly.

As for what I think of the vote itself, I stated long ago that I thought the whole process was idiotic. But even though I'm a big baseball fan, I really can't get too worked up about the results. If you believe that the summer Olympics are too big, then cutting baseball and softball makes sense. You eliminate a relatively large number of athletes, and a whole venue, which means a significant cost reduction. And not that many people are going to be upset about this. Many American sports columnists, predictably, are outraged, but they don't really care that much about baseball in the Olympics — they just don't like anybody criticizing baseball, especially the IOC. But sticking it to the USA is pretty much everybody's favourite pastime these days, so nobody's going to care. Canada, Cuba, Japan, and Australia are also a bit miffed, but don't have any clout within the IOC.

(Speaking of American sports columnists, allow me to put in a little plug here for the work of King Kaufman, one of my favourite sportswriters. And Ray Ratto is not usually my cup of tea, but he has a few pithy comments on this topic as well.)

Baseball has four major problems. First of all, not enough countries play baseball at a high level. Second in importance, the world's best baseball players don't participate in the Olympics. Third, only men compete at the Olympics. And finally, there's a persistent association with steroids, and a lack of serious enforcement of anti-doping policies. This last reason is getting a lot of press but I don't honestly believe that it has much to do with the outcome of the vote. The first two reasons are the critical factors, in my opinion.

Softball suffers from the first and third problems, too (although I am sure that they would be happy to add men's softball to the Olympic programme, as a replacement for baseball). Although I am not a fan of softball, its exclusion from the Olympics is much more significant than the exclusion of baseball. Baseball will survive anyway, since professional leagues already exist in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, but this will be a huge blow to softball. The NCAA will probably save high-level softball from extinction in North America, but it's going to be a dead end in the rest of the world unless they can get back into the Olympics.

After the IOC decided to drop baseball and softball, something really bizarre happened. Here's what the official procedure says should have happened. With two spots available on the programme, the IOC Executive Board would meet to select two substitute sports, to be proposed to the IOC membership for admission into the 2012 programme. Admission would require a change to the Olympic Charter, and therefore a 2/3 vote of the general membership.

There's nothing in the procedure to explain how the two candidates would be selected, other than to say that there were five candidates under consideration (rugby, roller sports, golf, karate, and squash). It turns out that karate and squash were selected, but apparently not by the Executive. Several news stories (SI.com, AFP) have reported that the two candidates were selected by a secret ballot of all of the delegates. Perhaps Rogge and the Executive bowed to pressure from the membership.

Conventional wisdom has it that Rogge's personal favourites were rugby and golf, so you could see the surprising selection of karate and squash as a deliberate snub, but that might be reading too much into it. At any rate, even though the members chose those two sports as the best candidates to replace baseball and softball, neither of them came close to receiving 2/3 delegate support in the final vote to modify the Olympic charter. What's really interesting is that both sports got slaughtered — 63-38 against for karate, and 63-39 against for squash. So at least half of the delegates thought that karate and squash were the best of the five possible additions, but fewer than half — far fewer — thought that they were worthy Olympic sports. In other words, the delegates thought that karate and squash were the best of a bad lot. That's an interesting statement, indeed.

Rogge is already wondering aloud if maybe it's too difficult to get new sports into the Olympics. I wouldn't be that surprised to see the "final" decision revisited once more before the 2012 games. The IOC has an interest in making the games as big as they think they can get away with; I am sure that Rogge's goal was not to shrink the number of sports by two. I will not be shocked if he finds a way to get what he wants.

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