Kiwis hold the key to sexing up the Olympics

By David Leggat

New sports are lined up to join the Olympics - and New Zealand researchers are trying to get them there, David Leggat reports.
Belinda Wheaton (left) and Holly Thorpe are researching into Olympic Games sports. Photo / University of Waikato
Belinda Wheaton (left) and Holly Thorpe are researching into Olympic Games sports. Photo / University of Waikato

Change is coming to the Olympic movement. Those who regard the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as out of touch with modern youth attitudes and thinking are about to get a surprise.

Innovation is in as the Olympics try to remain relevant for younger people in the face of challenges from the likes of the X Games, the Winter X Games and the online X Games.

New sports - surfing, sport climbing, skateboarding, baseball/softball and karate - are expected to be voted on to the programme for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Although the Olympics remain the multi-sports global biggie, there are concerns that younger viewers and potential athletes are being drawn to the more exciting, shorter international competitions.

As the IOC looks to adapt to the shifting sporting landscape, two New Zealand researchers are part of the information feed from which IOC members will cast their votes on the sports in Rio during this year's Olympics.

Holly Thorpe and British-born Belinda Wheaton, associate professors at Waikato University with a focus on the sociology of sport, have studied the challenges and opportunities for the Olympics in the years ahead.

Both come from action sports backgrounds.

They wrote a paper in a sociology journal issue about the London Olympics, which looked into the politics of the IOC and why action sports had been overlooked, or mishandled.

Important minds at the IOC read their paper and were impressed.

So Thorpe and Wheaton applied for an advanced Olympic research programme grant last July.

Their project, titled Youth Perceptions of the Olympic Games; Attitudes Towards Action Sports at the Olympics and Youth Olympics, is focused on sports that were being considered for Olympic recognition.

It zeroed in on skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing and how they embodied the culture of modern sports and how they would fit into the Olympics.

Shortly after they won the grant, those three sports were on the 2020 shortlist drawn up by the Tokyo organising committee, in conjunction with the IOC.

"That meant the whole project became that much more topical, exciting and political," Thorpe said.

The IOC wanted detailed information to put into the mixer on those sports to help make well-researched judgments.

The pair used three methods to get information: interviews with members in the action sports industry; an online survey of more than 800 athletes and administrators; and media analysis, to find out how attitudes were changing over time to these sports.

Usain Bolt strikes his signature pose after winning gold in the 2012 Olympics. Photo / AP
Usain Bolt strikes his signature pose after winning gold in the 2012 Olympics. Photo / AP

Thorpe is adamant their job is not to try to get certain sports on to the Olympic card but to provide an insight for IOC members on how those sports function and how they might fit into the Olympic framework.

In March, the sociologists presented their initial findings to the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland, which went down well with the body, Thorpe said.

Among the issues they looked at was how the IOC could integrate new sports, without losing their distinctiveness.

"What has been important is if they're going to include new sports there are ways to do it that are more respectful of what makes these sports unique and different," Thorpe said.

She talked of the need to avoid the square peg and round hole situation, trying to mould distinctive sporting pursuits to how the IOC wanted them to be.

Thorpe said knee-jerk reactions would kick in if new sports were simply stuck into an existing model.

"You might attract some mainstream viewers, but for long-term sustainability of these sports in the Olympics, it's really important these cultures back it. In these sports, peer approval and image is quite a big part of the industry.

"If you're going to do this, there are ways to do it well and with cultural understanding and respect for what makes these sports different."

Take sport climbing, where the potential Olympic event will combine three disciplines, speed, lead and bouldering, in a sport that operates with three distinct styles.

"It's a huge shift [to combine the three] and although they are mostly for it, there are concerns about this combined approach."

One of the more significant findings of their research was a strong belief from those working within these sports that the IOC "gets it", They believe it will do it right.

What has been important is if they're going to include new sports there are ways to do it that are more respectful of what makes these sports unique and different.

"They have faith in it to represent surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding appropriately. They have seen the IOC is trying to understand what makes them tick, what makes them different."

An important component is the work being done around the Youth Olympics, which is treated as an ideas laboratory.

The IOC has a department that is, in Thorpe's words, a "huge wall of brainstorming, really pushing ideas. What does the future of sport look like for these generation alpha kids [born since 2010]?"

The vision for the Youth Olympics is not that it should be some form of micro-Olympics but "they want it to be a space where cutting-edge development can happen".

The odd thing for Thorpe and Wheaton is that just as they're getting their teeth into a project that has many strands, it will end with the presentation of their report to the IOC next month.

"We feel we are just at the beginning," Thorpe said.

She admitted the pair would get a buzz when the IOC makes its announcements in Rio.

"I will feel our job is done when we see what happens in Tokyo and how the athletes and sports are represented in a way that is consistent with their value systems and philosophies.

"There are cool visions for what we might see in Tokyo in 2020."

Upping the action

• The International Olympic Committee is investigating adding so-called new "action sports" to its programme for the Tokyo Games in 2020.

• Two sociologists, New Zealander Holly Thorpe and British-born Belinda Wheaton, associate professors at Waikato University, are undertaking research for the IOC on the likely impact of the candidate sports to be added.

• They received an advanced Olympic research grant last July. Their work has been split into three areas - interviews of key figures in the action sports community; an online survey of more than 900 athletes and administrators; and media analysis of how sport has been covered across the spectrum from mainstream to social media and blogs to assess attitudes to action sports and the Games.

• Five sports have been shortlisted for Tokyo: baseball/softball, karate, sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding.

• The pair present their final report to the IOC in Lausanne next month. The IOC will reveal which sports have made the cut at the Rio Olympics in August.

The five in the spotlight

baseball became an official sport in Barcelona in 1992. Photo / Getty Images
baseball became an official sport in Barcelona in 1992. Photo / Getty Images

1. Baseball/softball

The only one of the five to have been there before: baseball became an official sport in Barcelona in 1992, softball was on the programme from 1996-2008. They were last contested at the 2008 Games in Beijing, but were voted out for 2012, becoming the first sports dumped from the Olympics since polo was rubbed out at the Berlin Games in 1936. Very popular in Japan.

2. Sport climbing

About 500,000 climbers live in Japan, and the country has been a solid performer on the international stage. Competition would include speed, lead and bouldering disciplines combined into a form of multi-discipline event, not dissimilar to three-day eventing in equestrian. The plan is for 30 men and 30 women to compete. Japanese athletes are prominent in the world rankings for the disciplines.

3. Surfing

It has tried for the past four Games to make the step but been rebuffed every time. Part of the problem has been the internal split between the pro-Olympic surfers, who have embraced the idea, and the anti-brigade who prefer surfing as its own stand-alone discipline. There have been moves to introduce surfing to wave pools and International Surfing Association boss Fernando Aguerre is a proponent. The idea is a big downer for the purists but, as Aguerre puts it, "I don't believe that the soul of surfing requires it to be an elite sport for the lucky few who live near the ocean's waves".

4. Skateboarding

Based on Thorpe and Wheaton's research, would be a popular addition. Street and park skateboarding are the recommended versions.

5. Karate

Yet to be sighted at the Olympics, which may owe something to judo and taekwondo already being on the programme. As the host city has a say in additional sports, and karate originated in Japan, the sport's prospects might be better than they were.

• If the five sports are added to the 2020 programme, it will mean 18 events and 474 more athletes. The cap of 10,500 athletes is likely to be eased for Tokyo to allow the new sports to bed in, before events are trimmed for the 2024 Games.

Boards top the list

A survey by Waikato University associate professors Holly Thorpe and Belinda Wheaton showed skateboarding, in its various forms, won the most support from the 820 surveyed. Photo / Getty Images
A survey by Waikato University associate professors Holly Thorpe and Belinda Wheaton showed skateboarding, in its various forms, won the most support from the 820 surveyed. Photo / Getty Images

Skateboarding is the sport most favoured from within the action sports fraternity to make an impact at the Summer Olympics.

A survey by Waikato University associate professors Holly Thorpe and Belinda Wheaton showed skateboarding, in its various forms, won the most support from the 820 surveyed.

It was followed by BMX freestyle, half pipe skateboarding, mega ramp skating, pool bowl skateboarding, parkour (free running), short board surfing and climbing.

So what is it about skateboarding?

"There's a central role that skate culture and style and aesthetics has across all action sports cultures," Thorpe said.

As Thorpe pointed out, even if the surfers, sport climbers, snowboarders, wakeboarders don't skate, they get it.

"All these sports have crossovers, they borrow from each other," she said.

"Kite boarding, for example, is at the intersection of surfing, snowboarding, wakeboarding and skateboarding."

Thorpe and Wheaton get it, too. Thorpe grew up in "a very sporty family". During her university days she "fell madly in love with snowboarding", spending eight successive winters in the snow as a competitor in New Zealand and an instructor in the US.

Wheaton was a British champion wave windsurfer and skier in the UK. Throw in a love of research work and they found the ideal mix of career.

They don't have a say in what decisions the IOC will make and Thorpe admitted she has sympathy for long-established Olympic sports that may fall by the wayside, perhaps influenced in part by the findings they will present to the IOC next month.

"The IOC is moving to a model where, after every Olympics, there will be a major evaluation of every sport and event," she said.

"Sports are up for regeneration and the IOC is realising it needs to be more competitive because there are so many more events and competitions out there for viewers."

- Herald on Sunday

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