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The Changing Face of Olympic Sport

We all know the classic sports of the Olympics: athletics, swimming, gymnastics, amongst others. These are sports that we’ve seen on the TV every year. But the Olympics is constantly updating itself, and sports are vying for a chance to make their competitors Olympic athletes. Tokyo 2020 (+1) was the opportunity for five new sports: skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing, karate, and softball/baseball. In addition, more events were included, such as BMX freestyle, and mixed gender relays in swimming and triathlon. So how successful were these new events?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decides whether a sport can become part of the Games. Firstly, a sport must have an international federation. Information about gender equity, global participation, passion by fans (measured by TV audiences, social media and event attendance) and the cost of venues is then considered.

It was a big moment for the new sports to have the opportunity to be in the Tokyo Olympic Games, offering unprecedented global exposure. Shauna Coxsey, the only GB athlete to compete in the sport climbing event, recognised the significance of competing at the Olympics: “It’s a monumental time for our sport. It is going to be seen by so many more people. If someone sees climbing and goes and finds something that they absolutely love and have a passion for, that’s huge to that individual.” The Games can inspire people around the globe, and with climbing walls already in more than 140 countries and over 35 million climbers, the interest in the sport is rising. The Olympics can encourage many to start a new sport.

One of the IOC’s key motivations in introducing five new sports was a “focus on youth”, with a hope that sports like skateboarding and surfing would draw in a wider audience to the Olympics and demonstrate it was modernising with the times.

One of the IOC’s key motivations in introducing five new sports was a “focus on youth”, with a hope that sports like skateboarding and surfing would draw in a wider audience to the Olympics and demonstrate that it was modernising with the times. Skateboarding certainly captured the interest of the youth, for the competitors themselves were some of the youngest in the Games. Britain’s 13 year-old bronze medallist Sky Brown joined 19 year-old Sakura Yosozumi and 12 year-old Kokona Hiraki on the podium in the women’s park skateboarding. While its athletes were not quite so young, climbing had an average age of just 21, with 18 year-old Spaniard Alberto Gines Lopez winning men’s gold and twenty-two year-old Slovenian Janja Garnbret women’s gold. Both sports were certainly marketed towards a young generation of athletes.

But did they manage to attract viewers? Both sports proved to be a virtual spectacle for audiences. With spectators in the parks not allowed due to COVID, all had to be watched on TV. And skateboarding and climbing fared well with TV audiences around the world. During its opening day of competition, climbing was the top trending Olympic sport on Google Search. The demonstration of skill and the excitement of new sports attracted viewers to these events. They gave a modern outlook to the Olympics that reflects sports that are enjoyed throughout the world.

In contrast to some of the rivalries of more established Olympic sports, viewers also delighted in the camaraderie of the athletes in many of the new sports. Regardless of country affiliation, skateboarders were seen enjoying each other’s company and supporting one another. Similar scenes were seen in the climbing and BMX freestyle events, with competitors cheering each other on. The atmosphere created in these sports is something that can hopefully be replicated across the board. This presented a symbol of unity between athletes from different countries, which after a trying year globally, was a joy to see.

In many Olympic sports, but in particular skateboarding, BMXing, climbing and surfing, rather than enjoying a celebrity-like status, athletes are from a variety of different backgrounds. Seeing this representation in sport sends a positive message for the hopeful athletes of the future. In interviews, there are a variety of accents to be heard from all around the UK, from Scottish to northern to southern. Charlotte Worthington, who won gold in the BMX park freestyle, was a full time chef before deciding to focus on the Olympics. From working over 40 hours a week in the kitchen to earning an Olympic gold, Worthington demonstrated that with hard work and dedication, it is possible to take a passion and turn it into a world-class skill.

Most importantly, the new sports are some of the most accessible in the Olympics. BMX silver medallist Kye Whyte has become known as the “Prince of Peckham” and hopes that his sport can “help kids come off the streets and get into BMX, no matter where they’re from”. There are skate parks around the country, giving those the chance to get into sports that they had never imagined. Hanging out in the skate park from a young age could end up being a career in BMXing or skateboarding. The new sports at the Olympics can provide inspiration and open up opportunities in a way that other, more traditional sports have been unable to do.

32% of Britain’s medallists in Rio 2016 were privately educated, and 36% in London 2012. In rowing, half of the medal winners in Rio came from fee-paying schools. It is unsurprising that this is the case, as well-funded private schools are able to have top-quality sports facilities with qualified coaches. Millfield is a co-educational independent school, and has an Olympic-sized swimming pool and an equestrian centre. At the Rio Games, 8 former pupils took part in the Olympics, bringing home 4 medals. With only 7% of the country being privately educated, these statistics are wildly out of proportion and highlight the elitism that is still prevalent in Team GB. This is why the introduction of new sports, which give an opportunity to more people from state school backgrounds who did not have access to such high-level facilities, is so important. Sport should be something for everyone, no matter whether they pay for school or not.

Crucial to success at the Olympics and supporting a career in sport is funding. UK Sport is responsible for deciding which sports receive funding and how much. It funds the best performing sports to try to guarantee more medals, and thus a sport will lose its funding if they do not feel it has medal potential. After UK Sport announced they would only support male BMX racers in Tokyo after no British women qualified for Rio 2016, Beth Shriever created her own programme and crowdfunded £50,000 in order to reach her Olympic goal. To enable athletes from different backgrounds to view the Olympics as a viable dream, funding is necessary, or they will need to work or go into debt to compete.

The future looks hopeful for the funding of these new and accessible sports. The success of the sports this year in terms of audience enjoyment will mean that they are able to retain their place in the Olympics. And the achievements of the GB teams, with a skateboarding bronze, BMX freestyle park gold and bronze and BMX race gold and silver, will undoubtedly mean that they will receive more funding.

Now is the time for more people, no matter their background, to be able to get involved in elite sport.

Image credit: pxhere.com (CC0).

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