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Ticket to Tokyo: Five Sports Move One Step Closer

7 Oct, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
What Sports Event Organizers Can Look for if the IOC Accepts Baseball/Softball, Surfing, Skateboarding, Sport Climbing and/or Karate for the 2020 Games

They're young. They're hip. And they might just be headed for Tokyo and Olympic glory.

Now that the Olympic Organizing Committee for the Tokyo 2020 Games has selected baseball/softball, surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate as the sports it will encourage the International Olympic Committee to include, the question becomes this: what will it mean to event organizers?

Growth, everyone hopes. Oh, and TV viewers at the youth level.

Although the IOC will consider all five sports, it is under no obligation to accept all five suggestions – or even any of them. However, the world will just have to remain in a wait-and-see mode because the IOC will formally announce new entries for the 2020 Games ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Under the Olympic reforms approved last December, the IOC abolished the cap of 28 sports for the summer Games while maintaining a limit of 10,500 athletes and 310 medal events. Host cities can propose additional events. (These events may or may not be included in future Games, however.)

If, however, the five chosen sports are, in fact, incorporated into the summer Games in Tokyo, they do stand to get a boost from the worldwide viewership. And with that boost will come new opportunities for sports tourism.

Some sports don’t actually lack for visibility. Baseball and softball, already wildly popular, gain the prestige of being a medal sport – but it’s an odd dynamic. They will return to the Games for the first time since 2008, but in the USA, Major League Baseball may not be allowing athletes to leave their regular seasons to participate on the international level. It may mean the USA will be pinning its hopes on college players and others for success at the international level.

Other sports, however, don’t have that conflict. They are looking for growth in the USA – and are counting on the boost of the Olympics to fuel that growth. Surfing, with its youth, edgy vibe and its all-American image, is one of these. Having surfing in the Games could encourage more coastal resorts to offer lessons and intro clinics, and could begin the growth of a microeconomy with board rentals and more in areas that don’t currently have much to offer there. More to the event organizers’ perspective, it could build business with competitions and pro tours around the U.S. Already, some of the hot tickets include the Vans US Open of Surfing, Southeast Regional Surfing Championship, Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, ASP World Tour-Pipeline Masters, Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Memorial, the East Coast Surfing Championships and the Mavericks Big Wave Surfing Competition.

First, though, surfing is going to have to get past the divisiveness within the sport in order to present a united front. With some pros stating vehemently they do not want their sport tainted by commercialism, and others noting that “no two waves are the same, so competition could never be fair,” the sport is going to have to find a way to pull together and impress the IOC as a viable contender if it is to ride the wave of economic impact the Olympics could bring.

Skateboarding is another youthful, counterculture sport that will make its debut. Unlike surfing, it does offer the opportunity to have competitions in a constructed park with no variables for athletes to complain about. The sport is already poised for explosive growth in the USA, with events such as Street League Skateboarding Championships and the Dew Tour bringing in the crowds. And it has the popularity among the youth market that the IOC loves.

The only question that remains, however, is one posed by Transworld Business: Who will steer the ship? The contenders to be the international governing body include the World Skateboarding Federation (WSF), the Federation International de Roller Sports (FIRS) and the International Skateboarding Federation (ISF). The international governing body will set down the rules for the sport and will work with the IOC to implement them at the Olympic level. It is in the best interest of the sport to name one governing body now, since the IOC will want to see top-level organization when it makes its decisions.

Sport Climbing, which has been gaining in popularity, was represented by the International Federation of Sport Climbing and the Japanese Mountaineering Association in making its case to Tokyo organizers. In the USA, the sport is governed by USA Climbing. USAC sanctions competitions nationwide in the disciplines of Speed, Bouldering, Collegiate and Sport Climbing, as well as Adaptive Climbing, the discipline for the Paralympic level. A schedule of upcoming competitions can be found here. Acceptance at the Olympic level could be a boon for local climbing clubs and gyms, as well as for event organizers who could harness the improved visibility to bring in spectators as well as new athletes to events nationwide. Currently, USAC organizes more than over 150 competitions each year, through multiple competitive series, including the IFSC Boulder World Cup Vail, GoPro Games Citizens Competitions Vail and the SCS Youth Nationals in Stone Summit, Georgia.

While sport climbing can be considered a niche sport in the United States, that term actually accounts for many sports at the Olympic level. According to the British Mountaineering Council, the tremendous popularity of climbing in Japan was a factor in its selection. Worldwide, the sport counted 25 million climbers in 2013, while in 2015, figures are estimated to have grown to 35 million. Around 50% are under 25 years of age, thanks to the latest trend of urban/action sports.

Karate, the final suggested sport, is perhaps the biggest non-surprise of all. It has popularity in its corner (according to the Associated Press,  the Japan Karatedo Federation says more than 100 million people practice karate in 190 countries, more than baseball and softball's combined total of 65 million players in 141 countries.) In addition, the Tokyo city government had unanimously adopted a resolution in November calling for the inclusion of karate and the combined bid for baseball and softball.

USA Karate has an active presence in the United States, with events held nationwide. Currently, the Diamond World Karate Nationals are taking place in Bloomington, Minnesota. The presence of karate in the Olympics could spur more competitions at the local and regional levels.

Sports that were chosen are proposing specific events; they are as follows:

  • Baseball: 1 event/Softball: 1 event
  • Karate: 8 events (men’s and women’s kata, 3 weight classes for men’s kumite, 3 weight classes for women’s kumite)
  • Skateboard: 4 events (men’s and women’s street and park)
  • Sport climbing: 2 events (bouldering, lead and speed combined for men and women)
  • Surfing: 2 events (shortboard for men and women)

Bowling, squash and wushu also had been short-listed for inclusion in Tokyo but were left off the final recommended list, according to an article in Yahoo! News. Organizers of these sports have expressed their disappointment, but have resolved to keep working for inclusion in future Games.

In seeking new sports, the organizers in Japan were keenly focused on bringing in a younger demographic. For years, the median age of the TV viewership has been creeping upwards; according to figures compiled in 2010 by ratings company Nielsen: “Olympics ratings are clearly highest among older viewers. Ratings among teenagers are 57% lower than the national average for this year's primetime Olympics broadcasts. Ratings among the 18-49 group are 20% lower than the national average, while ratings among those 55 and older are 82% higher.”

In recent years, the IOC has made steps toward incorporating sports it feels are likely to bring in young viewers. Slopestyle skiing and snowboarding, for example, were added with a younger audience in mind. The 2020 summer Games, meanwhile, is also striving for the youth market.

"This package of events represents both traditional and emerging, youth-focused events, all of which are popular both in Japan and internationally," Tokyo organizers said in a statement.

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