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The Surprising Places The 5 New Olympic Sports Announced For Tokyo 2020 Could Lead Us

Surfing, skateboarding, climbing and karate will become Olympic sports for the first time at the Tokyo 2020 Games after a long-anticipated decision was confirmed by the International Olympic Committee on Wednesday. Baseball/softball has also been let back into the games for the first time since 2008.

But how did these sports end up on top? Why were they the chosen ones, and not squash, roller sports or wushu, a Chinese martial art?

The first reason is simple: they are relevant to Japan. Baseball is Japan's biggest sport by a mile, karate is a traditional favorite, and skateboarding is popular among young people. What the IOC did - and is probably going to do from now on - is empower the Olympic host cities to create their own sport programs.

This is a reasonable approach. Japanese spectators and TV viewers will be much more interested in baseball than, say, the modern pentathlon - not that the pentathlon is not being dropped from the program in 2020. It's possible that there will be more local favorites as the Olympics continue to rotate among the continents in the future. The next U.S. Olympics might see American football, and if India ever become a host country then cricket will surely get a look.

Under the IOC's Agenda 2020, no sports will be removed from the program to accommodate new ones - which is what happened in the past. But the number of disciplines and athletes taking part is limited, so it's likely that some sports will be reduced in numbers.

Get Ready For Action

But there is a second rationale behind the five-sport package announced for Tokyo. Never before have so many so-called "action" sports entered the Olympics simultaneously.


Skateboarding, climbing and surfing follow in the footsteps of fellow extreme sports BMX and snowboarding, which have been unanimously praised as breaths of fresh air to the Summer and Winter Olympics.

This is clearly a sign of where the future lies for the games, as these sports will mostly attract a young audience - teenager viewers who will be consumers of the Olympics in years to come.

Olympic broadcasters and sponsors (mainly from North America) would welcome skateboarding, as the number of people who regularly skateboard in the U.S. alone is estimated to be about 14 million. And that's probably at least as many teenagers who play the blockbuster video games endorsed by the skater Tony Hawk.

What It Means For The New Sports

For the newly chosen sports, the Olympic exposure makes a difference in sponsorship and state funding in most countries - although most of these benefits are indirect and hard to measure. That is why sport climbing has been applying for an Olympic spot for the last decade - a journey that I have followed in my own research.


And that is why there has been a power struggle between several governing bodies claiming to "own" international skateboarding.

Nor is there any clear consensus on whether the new sports are unanimously happy about being in the Olympics. Most elite athletes of competitive sports look forward to being in the spotlight and having a chance to become part of the biggest multi-sport event on the planet.

But the Olympic movement emphasizes bureaucratization and control. This is where it clashes with the traditional cultures of surfing, climbing and skateboarding, which have all historically been about freedom of self-expression and reluctance to being regulated by governing bodies.

Here is what Sage Kotsenburg, the current Olympic champion in snowboarding, tweeted immediately after the IOC's decision:

Her hashtag perfectly summarized the idea of self-organization of extreme alternative sports, whose athletes advocate that they must be organized from the inside not from the outside.

Skepticism towards the Olympics by skateboarders has been fueled by the case of snowboarding, particularly as the IOC gave the right to manage this sport to the International Ski Federation.

Many climbers, surfers and skateboarders are scared that they might lose control to organizations and people who don't understand their sports. The IOC's idea of combining all three disciplines of climbing in one, for example, so that athletes will have to do bouldering, speed and lead, is something that many climbers I spoke to during my research are not happy about, and see as a sign of lack of respect and understanding of their sport.

In skateboarding, surfing and climbing, there have been numerous online petitions claiming that the Olympic movement only wants to exploit their sports.

The danger is that the whole Olympics could become a little disintegrated, with sports making fleeting appearances for a few Games, then being jettisoned by future Olympic committees or the sports themselves.

So enjoy the next few weeks of Rio 2016 - it's likely to be the last "traditional" Olympic games.


Mikhail Batuev is a lecturer in sport management in the Department of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation at Northumbria University, Newcastle. This article was originally published on The Conversation.


Comments welcome.

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