Squashed! The aesthetics of sport

Once again, squash will not be included in the line-up at this year’s Olympic Games. As Jonathan Bain writes, that’s because it just doesn’t look good on TV.

I am an occasional squash player. (To be honest with you, it has been about eighteen months since my last match. So: very occasional.) I’m not particularly good, but a few games with a similarly not-particularly-good opponent offer the opportunity for excellent exercise. Squash is kinetic and strategic, fast-paced and fun.

It is also, apparently, not a proper sport. Or so says the International Olympic Committee. There are more than 300 events scheduled for the 2021 (formerly 2020, of course) Games in Tokyo, which commence this month. These exclude squash, but include disciplines like archery, kayaking, handball, trampolining, rugby sevens, table tennis, beach volleyball and taekwondo. Table tennis; just let that one sink in. Table tennis, ladies and gentlemen, has been an Olympic sport since 1988. To me, it has always felt a little like the summer equivalent of the Winter Olympics’ curling competition. A minor activity has been majorly hyped up. (The obvious clue here is that no one has ever heard of a doping scandal involving table tennis players, or curlers.) Indeed, to the casual observer, there is a slight silliness to both pursuits. Very, very tiny tennis! Competitive sweeping!

Now, as a squash player, I suppose I would say that. But by any comparison, squash requires at the very least the same athleticism as that needed for table tennis. Or badminton, which is also an Olympic sport. Badminton; let that one sink in, too.

You can see, in part, why squash remains the poor cousin when you take a glance at the four sports that will this year make their debut at an Olympic Games. They are: sport climbing, karate, surfing and – but of course – skateboarding. All of these activities skew younger, both in terms of participants and a potential audience. Writing on Statsperform, Oliver Hopkins notes, depressingly, that these new inclusions demonstrate an ‘impressive show of foresight’ from the International Olympics Committee. The Committee is, in his reading, rightly responding to the 2016 Games in Rio, where global viewership declined for the first time. Particularly worrying for the IOC: around 30% fewer millennials tuned in. And so we now have skateboarding in Tokyo, as well as – apparently tabled in full seriousness – break-dancing in Paris in 2024. Hopkins continues in his matter-of-fact way, also mentioning the IOC’s need to satiate the younger viewer’s desire for screen ‘snacking’. That is to say, watching short pieces of video content across multiple digital platforms.

Instead of an ‘impressive show of foresight’, I would suggest that the IOC’s plans actually reveal an astonishingly knee-jerk decision-making process. Quick! Young people will only watch other young people if they’re skateboarding on Tiktok! As to the question of snacking, I worry that this term is simply a euphemism for ‘not paying attention’. Which means that the IOC is trying to grab a slice of an ever-diminishing concentration span. We shall soon be on to micro- and simultaneous-snacking, followed by nibbling, tidbitting, and licking. The modern Olympic Games has thusly transformed itself: from the lofty showcase of citius altius fortius into merely content – preferably of the most easily digestible kind. 

And that, it doesn’t take much deduction to work out, is the primary reason why squash has never been admitted as an Olympic sport. It just doesn’t translate well onto screen. The IOC has, in fact, been quite blunt about this when squash has lobbied for inclusion in the past. In turn, this has led to several ‘innovations’ in the sport, including glass courts, underfloor cameras, and – if memory serves – illuminated balls.

I have to admit, even watching squash live is not optimal. Usually, all spectators are stuck with the same single view… either on a raised elevation or from behind a glass wall, at the rear of the court. You are invariably seeing only the player’s backsides. On television, the ball can be hard to follow; the setting constrained and claustrophobic. It is a screen within a screen. But note what is absent from all these discussions: the actual sport – and whether or not it is a competitive, demanding, and worthwhile physical pursuit. The IOC’s message is therefore clear: the aesthetic trumps the athletic. Squash, unfortunately for those at the top of this particular game, is the ugly duckling that, on screen, only transforms into an ugly swan.

It is at margins such as this one that our visual culture starts working against us. You can find similar examples elsewhere. Wildlife conservationists admit to employing in their communications ‘charismatic megafauna’ – elephants and pandas – rather than less beautiful things, because this is what snacking viewers prefer. But that doesn’t make species like the finless porpoise or the mountain plover any less endangered. I have likewise written before that fundraising for (sexually-proximate) breast and testicular cancer is often very publicly endorsed by multinational brands. But that doesn’t make deaths from the more ‘unfashionable’ bowel or lung cancer any less lamentable.

Squash is in the same category, I’m afraid. It is the finless porpoise of sport; the lung cancer of the Olympics. It is not charismatic, monetisable, sexy or young. And so, in our global society at this point in time, it is worth less.

A final appeal to the umpire, perhaps. Surely – surely in 2021 – the synchronised swimming competition is a sexist anachronism, however snackable? Might we not boot that particular federation until they’ve got their equality issues sorted – with men in speedos performing sculls and side-fishtails – and give squash a look-in in the meanwhile?

Words: Jonathan Bain
Production: J-P de la Chaumette
Images: as credited with hero image courtesy of Artem Podrez from Pexels.