POSTED: September 23rd 2015

NEIL WILSON: The Olympic sport of number crunching

Next week Tokyo 2020 will decide on their choice of sports to propose to the IOC for inclusion in the Summer Games /  Bigstock
Next week Tokyo 2020 will decide on their choice of sports to propose to the IOC for inclusion in the Summer Games / Bigstock

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) Seated in the coffee shop of a plush hotel in downtown Mexico City during a FINA Congress in the late 1970's I got into conversation with one of the delegates.

He was from a central African republic, he said.  Do you have many swimming pools, I asked, knowing that his country had never entered a swimmer in FINA's world championships.

One, he replied proudly, adding "In the Holiday Inn." One pool in the nation but one vote in the international federation and one more boost to FINA's national membership.

I bring up the memory after reading that the International Surfing Association has just announced its 97th member nation, Norway.  Not my perception of a surfing nation with those frigid seas and rocky fjords but apparently there is a Norwegian Surfing Club.

Numbers matter to international sports federations. They matter most to those sports not yet among those contested at Olympic Games. Like surfing.

Next week the Tokyo 2020 organising committee will announced its choice of one or two sports to propose to the International Olympic Committee for inclusion in its Games.

The IOC will decide next year whether to accommodate them under its new philosophy of an event-based cap on numbers rather than its former cap of 28 sports.

Surfing is among eight which Tokyo's selection panel is considering. The others are baseball and softball, squash, karate, bowling, roller sports, sport climbing and wushu (or, to most of us, kung-fu).

What earned these eight a place on the short-list, according to Fujio Mitarai, the panel's chair, was their appeal to a younger generation and world-wide popularity. On both counts, numbers matter.

The IOC's own Charter states that for a sport to be considered for inclusion in the summer Games it must be "widely practised" by men in 75 countries on four continents and by women in at least 40 on three continents.

That phrase "widely practised" should be crucial but the IOC turns a blind eye. Think modern pentathlon and synchronized swimming. How anyway does one measure popularity? It is difficult to measure which explains why sports exaggerate.

The latest example of that happened this week at the Rugby World Cup. World Rugby, its international federation, claimed a global TV audience of 420 million for the opening game between England and Fiji. Utter nonsense, of course.

In countries that make up half the world's population - China, India, Russia, Bangladesh, Nigeria etc - there are barely 50,000 registered players. So popularity across half the globe is non-existent, and in most of the world the game was played in the middle of the night.

It was a number plucked out of the ether by some spin doctor trying to persuade us that the Emperor had clothes.

So good luck to Mr Mitarai and his panel this weekend when they try to judge the popularity among youth of those eight sports. Each will have drowned them in statistics.

They should remember that Mark Twain wrote that there are three lies - lies, damned lies and statistics.

** NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

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