Last week I was asked a question by a young teenage girl in our NETFIT Netball academy – “Why isn’t Netball an Olympic sport in Tokyo 2020?” It got me curious. Turns out it was a very good question.
Fascinated, I did some quick and interesting desktop research and there didn’t seem to be a quick answer. Netball is very popular and widely played at grassroots level, would benefit hugely from the exposure Olympic inclusion would bring. Netball has worked tirelessly at the elite, amateur and grassroots level without Olympic visibility which speaks volumes for what both sports have to offer, but the sky really could be the limit and maybe it could be time the IOC reconsidered – especially with Queensland in Australia a front-running candidate for the 2032 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games.
Recognised by the IOC
In 1995, Netball became a “recognized” sport of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and one of the Federation’s objectives is to ensure this status is retained and to encourage the International Olympic Committee to include Netball in the Olympic Games Programme in the future. Interestingly, Netball has been a core sport in the Commonwealth Games since 1998.
International Federations and National Olympic Committees outlined a series of specific criteria aimed at evaluating sports and drawing up a more clearly defined procedure for the review of the Olympic programme. The list of 33 evaluation criteria is divided into seven categories:
- History and tradition
- Popularity of the sport
- Athletes’ health
- Development of the IF
Netball would seem to satisfy most of the criteria easily and comprehensively – was I missing something?
Then I found the following threshold criteria which would ensure it is a “Universal” sport:
“To qualify as an official Olympic sport, the sport must be played by men in 75 countries on at least four continents, and by women in 50 countries on at least three continents”.
The International Netball Federation — the governing body of the world championships and world netball—is already comprised of 70 countries across five continents”. Could the lack of men playing the sport could be the reason?
Good news is that from a sheer size and global participation perspective, Netball would seem to fit the criteria to become an Olympic sport one day. With 20 million participants worldwide, it has the participation based to certainly be globally relevant enough compared to existing Olympic sports. Let’s compare a few current and past Olympic sports to Netball:
- Karate (100 million people) – Individual
- Surfing (17-35 million) – Individual
- Handball (27 million) – Team
- Netball (20 million) – Team (NOT CURRENTLY AN OLYMPIC SPORT)
- Squash (20 million) — Individual
- Skateboarding (11 million) – Individual
- Rugby (7 million)
In the 2016, 45 percent of 10,500 participants in the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games were women. If Netball were to be included in future Olympic Games, it could help to solve this problem immediately due to the fact that it is primarily played by women.
Netball aligns with Youth
I found some additional press releases which stated “We want to take sport to the youth” said IOC President, Thomas Bach. Good news is that ~75% of Netballers are under the age of 35 years old and TV audiences are over the age of 35 years old. Again, it would seem that Netball will tick that box too!
There are three challenges which would seem to be impeding the inclusion of Netball in the Summer Olympics:
- Summer Olympics will be limited to 28 Sports: In November 2002, the IOC decided at its Extraordinary Session in Mexico City, to curb the growth of the Olympic programme and limit the number of sports in the Games of the Olympiad to 28. At the same time, the number of events was limited. Theoretically, if Netball was to be included in the 2032 Summer Olympics (lots of assumptions here!)
- Universality: Can we grow Netball in the Top-Tier Olympic countries? One theory is that the USA’s indifference to netball is the main factor. “Certainly the fact netball is largely absent in the US doesn’t help, and netball’s lack of presence in two other Olympic giants – China and Russia – is surely another problem. While each of those three nations boast a rich sporting heritage, it seems to us as though their Olympic influence is perhaps too great”.
- Lack of Men: Perhaps this is a reason. But interestingly, perhaps Basketball could work together to support Netball worldwide to support their admission? (In a similar way to Basketball and Softball working collaboratively). Since 2012, FIBA has had a lot of success with 3×3 basketball as an exciting and innovative sport (included in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games) but with only 430,000 players practising the 3×3 basketball, this could be worth exploring further the endorsement of FIBA in helping the international Netball Federation have Netball included at future Olympic Games..
Interestingly, the other team sport to watch that looks well positioned to be included at the 2028 or 2032 Olympics is Lacrosse. Particularly since the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics (USA is a world leader) and if 2032 was Australia’s Olympics, Australia is ranked a Top 5 country worldwide. In theory, Netball might find itself competing against Lacrosse as the “New Team Sport” to gain inclusion the 2032 Olympics.
It would appear the best chance Netball has to become an Olympic sport will be either if major Olympic countries (USA, China, Russia) embrace the sport in the next decade and/or if Queensland wins the 2032 Summer Olympics and Australia could influence the inclusion of Netball as an Olympic sport. If successful at the 2032 Olympics, I’m absolutely certain a few of our young NETFIT community (6 – 24-year olds) would be playing for their respective Netball national teams!! But for this to happen, it would need to soon become a major strategic priority among senior decision makers in the international Netball community.