There should be no room for big-time sports at Olympics


ON TENNIS:WITH THE Olympics looming, the tennis world looks not to the US Open and New York but to Beijing, Johnny Waterson.

Although tennis was one of the sports included in the first Olympic Games of the modern era, Athens 1896, where Ireland's John Pius Boland won the gold medal in the singles, the four Grand Slams in tennis have long ago overtaken the Games in terms of importance for players.

In Beijing, however, the presence of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Venus and Serena Williams should nudge the Olympic profile of the sport a little higher.

This year's entry list is the strongest since 1988, when tennis returned to the Games as a full medal event at Seoul.

Of the top 20 men, 17 will compete in Beijing; and there will be 18 of the top 20 women.

America's Andy Roddick and France's Richard Gasquet have decided to miss out. Roddick will probably never get the chance again, even if he is interested when London comes around.

In more recent years, other big professional sports have tried to regain entry into the global circus ring, most notably rugby, baseball and golf. The powerbrokers of professional golf are making a concerted effort to have it included in the 2016 Games. Meanwhile, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, a former Belgian rugby international, will continue to be lobbied by members the International Rugby Board.

The IOC have decided to include two new sports for the 2016 Games, and they will come from golf, rugby, baseball, squash, karate, roller sports and softball.

Just what sports will be ditched from the Games to accommodate the two have not yet come up for public discussion as the event continues to struggle against gigantism.

But if the Olympic Games are to be anything more than a marketing tool for the most powerful professional sports, neither golf nor rugby should be granted entry. The inclusion of tennis also grates. Nor should the Olympics become yet another stage for soccer stars like Lionel Messi to drop in on and make off with another bauble to add to their collections.

For the big sports the Olympics are like the brightly coloured sweets that attract the attention of children when they come into view. Whenever the Olympics come around they want a piece of the action, but in between times those sports have much better things to be doing.

Golfers do not dream Olympic dreams. Tennis players do not plan their lives around the four-year cycle. The game of rugby does not see the Olympics as anything other than a potential marketing tool but one that in terms of importance comes way down the list behind the Heineken Cup, Six Nations Championships, Tri-Nations, Curry Cup, Super 14 and World Cup.

In tennis, the four Grand Slams take precedence and probably the Masters Series too. Roddick, most likely, is missing Beijing to concentrate on trying to win the US Open.

In soccer even domestic leagues overshadow the Olympics, the current squabbling between the Argentina star Messi and Barcelona highlighting just how little importance the Spanish club side place on the Games. None.

Earlier this month during the British Open, a spokesman from the RA said the Games were an opportunity to "open new markets" for the sport. But for most of the Olympic sports that are seen by few people in any other context - like canoeing, gymnastics, weightlifting, swimming, hockey, diving and rowing - the Olympics are the pinnacle. For practitioners of those sports the Games are the only event that counts; everything they do in their careers is geared toward winning Olympic medals.

They don't look at the Games and see an opportunity to broaden the appeal of their sport or create global markets. They see the Olympics as their holy grail.

For big sports to come in and loot the event at the expense of the smaller sports who have been the life blood of the Games since they were established in 1896 seems obscene, even if the IOC now look at television appeal as their priority. But when the IOC decided in Mexico 2002 to fix a maximum of 28 disciplines, 301 events and 10,500 athletes, it meant that every time a code like tennis, soccer, rugby or golf came in, another sport very likely would have to go out.

The reality is that nobody remembers who wins Olympic tennis medals. Who can remember that Stefan Edberg won the bronze medal in 1988 or that the Williams sisters won doubles gold in Sydney, or that Mardy Fish won the silver medal in Athens 2004? The further homogenisation of world sport into a stronger bloc of power federations has nothing to do with the Corinthian ideal, which, believe it or not, the IOC still adhere to in rare moments.

And when tennis comes on our screens this summer, it will not be disloyal to the sport to switch over to watch the 5ft 2in man from Bulgaria lifting the equivalent of a cement mixer above his head or the 12-year-old Chinese girl bouncing like a rubber ball across the hall.

That is the Olympic Games, not Rafa Nadal and Tiger Woods.