By Carolyn Hughes
OPINION: Once upon a time, long ago, England were due to play rugby against Wales and Martin Johnson answered a request for the roof of Principality Stadium (formerly known as Millennium Stadium) to be shut with “No, it’s a winter sport.” It’s a pithy reply I like so much that I use it when schoolgirl GKs are complaining about the cold on those early morning weekend matches.
Netball is a winter sport. So why are we talking about trying to get netball into the Summer Olympics? Maybe we are missing a trick and need to aim for the Winter Olympics. Here’s my argument.
Avoid an over-crowded program
The Summer Olympics offers 33 sports, yet the Winter Olympics only has 15. For netball to get into the Summer Games, something else has to go. Arguing that another sport should be booted out just so yours can be added will be a hard sell. Surely with the Winter Games you can argue it’s easier to add a new sport without removing one because it has the space, particularly considering netball doesn’t involve snow (more on that in a moment).
Increase broadcasting revenue
Potential to increase broadcasting revenue is another reason. The Winter Olympics doesn’t have the same pulling power as the Summer Games. And with pressure on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to share more of the television revenue with host nations, netball as a globally growing sport could help in selling broadcasting rights to countries traditionally not that interested in the Winter Games. As the saying goes, every little bit helps. I suspect that an indoor venue that’s not an ice rink might be very popular with paying, in-person spectators too.
Wintery trappings not required
Most new events in the Winter Games tend to be new variations of current snow sports, hence cross-country running hasn’t been adopted yet. However, with the increasing costs of hosting and the effects of climate change, snow is becoming a disadvantage for the Winter Olympics and I think in future the IOC will have to look at changing what is included.
The Sochi games was 80 per cent fake snow and it looks like this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics will be all fake snow. That is a problem. Fake snow involves complex water delivery systems and the costs are huge. Sochi cost $59.7b., but the previous Winter Games in Vancouver was only $8.9b. in comparison. And with water becoming a precious resource, should the IOC be encouraging reliance on fake snow?
While some snow sports can move indoors, others just can’t – and maybe their inclusion will start to depend on the host city. We’ve already seen the Commonwealth Games look to allow host nations to decide which sports are included in ‘their’ games, with the exception of the two core sports of swimming and athletics. This is because the costs involved in hosting a Commonwealth or Olympic Games has swollen so much that there are at times no candidates putting in a bid. As I write this the breaking news is that Melbourne has been asked to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games. As it stands, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics is the only one to have made a profit. It negotiated on using existing facilities and the IOC may well have to move towards the new Commonwealth Games model, opening up the possibility of hosting a Winter Games to a wider variety of nations – perhaps even jointly or across a whole nation, rather than in one city.
Think about the legacy
This brings me to legacy, the current buzzword of the Olympic brand and the point in my argument at which netball joining the Winter Games really makes sense.
It should not involve any white elephant projects. However, if no suitable facility is already available, then building a Copper Box-sized arena would benefit the local area in a big way used for a wide variety of sports (some which may be Summer Games sports) and other events all year round. That’s an investment project with a real long-term legacy.
Sport has the potential to empower women around the globe. Peace Proscovia, Mary Cholhok and Bongi Msomi are powerful ambassadors for just what women from Africa, a continent that has not yet hosted an Olympic or Commonwealth Games, can achieve with netball. Consider too Beyond the Court, an initiative from the London Metropolitan Police and England Netball about empowering young women and breaking down barriers between young people and the police. If the IOC is really as concerned with legacy as it states, then it should be concerned about young women and girls instead of hiding behind the fact netball is predominantly a women’s sport as a reason to exclude it.
But men don’t play netball. We know that’s not true – and artistic swimming (a women’s-only sport in the Summer Games) doesn’t seem to be a problem for the IOC. There must be room for negotiation here. 3×3 basketball only involved eight nations in the men’s and women’s pools respectively in Tokyo 2020. That’s not many, by any standards. So why couldn’t an Olympic men’s competition start with fewer participating nations while the men’s gains traction around the world? And wouldn’t visibility at the Olympics help to grow the men’s game? Wouldn’t that be a legacy fit for the Olympics?
But the Winter Olympics is in the same year as the Commonwealth Games; it’s too much for the athletes. Yes, this is true. However, a netball squad is made up of 12 players. The top nations now have the problem of who to leave out and could have two separate teams while still offering top-notch competition. For the other nations, this is much trickier; however, their main reason for not being at that level is money. Olympic inclusion could open up government funding – and then there are the sponsorship deals. This would help the men’s game too.
Perhaps netball will have to start small at the Winter Games. But the results – beginning with an increase in funding – will be a legacy the Olympics can be proud of. Netball isn’t a kit-heavy game (you just need a couple of hoops and a ball), it doesn’t need a huge amount of grassroots money and it doesn’t have the environmental requirements or impacts of what we might traditionally think of as Winter Games sports. If Jamaica can field bobsleigh teams, why can’t netball be a Winter Olympics sport?
Header image: England Netball