Faster, Higher, Stronger. But Also More Global, Sustainable and Appealing to Youth. A Brief Overview of How New Sports Are Added to the Olympic Games Programme.
Monday, December 4, 2023

For the first time in 128 years, cricket returns to the Olympics when it will feature at the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games (“LA28“). It has been a long leave of absence for the sport, which last featured at the 1900 Olympics in Paris, when Great Britain secured the gold medal against the host nation in the only match of the Games.

As announced by the International Olympic Committee (“IOC“) last month, baseball/softball, flag football, lacrosse and squash will join cricket as the approved “additional sports” for LA 28. But how exactly are new sports added to the programme for the Olympic Games and what considerations does the IOC take into account?

Sports, disciplines and events

The programme for each Olympic Games comprises “sports”, “disciplines” and “events”. As an initial point, it’s important to note the distinctions made between each by the IOC.

A “sport” is that which is governed by an International Federation (“IF“), whereas a “discipline” is a branch of a sport, which in itself comprises one or more “events”, being a competition where final results and medals are awarded.

To put it in practical terms, skiing is a sport which is governed by the International Ski Federation (“FIS“). The FIS governs six disciplines, which include alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding. There are then various events in which athletes compete for medals; for example, there are 11 events within the alpine skiing discipline. These include downhill, slalom and Super-G.

How are sports included in the Olympic Games programme?

There are two main routes for a sport to be included in the programme of an Olympic Games:

  1. Initial Sports Programme: The initial sports programme primarily consists of the traditional Olympic sports (e.g. athletics, aquatics and gymnastics), as well as certain further sports for each edition of the Olympic Games. The initial sports programme is voted on at a general meeting of the IOC members (a “Session“) upon proposal from the IOC Executive Board.[1] This decision will occur, in principle, at the Session where the host of such edition of the Olympic Games is elected or seven years prior to its opening, whichever occurs later.
  2. Additional sports: Since Tokyo 2020, and following the recommendations of the Olympic Agenda 2020,[2] the relevant organising committee of each edition of the Olympic Games (“OCOG“) may also propose one or more additional events for inclusion in that specific edition of the Olympic Games.[3] Following agreement between the OCOG, the relevant IF and the IOC, the sports programme may be subsequently amended by the Session to include the additional sports for such edition of the Games, which will occur no later than three years before the opening of the relevant Olympic Games.[4]

The final events programme will then be decided later, following completion of the previous edition of the Olympics and at least three years before the opening of the relevant Olympic Games.[5]

Which new sports are included in the LA28 sports programme?

  1. Initial sports programme: Last year, the IOC Session in Beijing approved the LA28 initial sports programme, which will be comprised of 28 sports. Alongside the various long-standing and traditional Olympic sports, the LA28 initial sports programme also includes skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing following their successful debuts as “additional” sports at Tokyo 2020 and given their deep roots in California.
  2. Additional sports: The IOC approved the LA28 OCOG’s proposal to include baseball/softball, cricket (T20), flag football, lacrosse (sixes) and squash as additional sports. For an introduction to the sport of flag football, see our previous post on this blog.

How do sports become eligible for selection?

Not all sports are considered by the IOC for inclusion in the Olympic Games. In order to be eligible for selection in the sports programme, a sport must be governed by an IF that is a non-governmental organisation that is recognised by the IOC.[6] In order to do so, the statutes, practice and activities of the IF must conform with the Olympic Charter and the IF must also adopt and implement the World Anti-Doping Code and the Olympic Movement Code on the Prevention of the Manipulation of Competition to protect the integrity of their sports.[7]

How are the sports chosen?

Simply being eligible for selection, however, is only a small part of the process for inclusion in the sports programme. The IOC recognises numerous IFs, several of which govern sports that are not currently included in the sports programme, including the likes of chess, flying disc (i.e. frisbee), lifesaving, pétanque and tug of war! Whilst many of these sports would make interesting additions to the Olympic Games, the selection process is narrowed down based on various criteria.

The OCOG may propose specific evaluation criteria to review each sport’s disciplines and evaluate potential new sports for its edition of the Olympic Games. Last year, the IOC approved the LA28 Olympic sports programme evaluation criteria which reflect the Olympic Agenda 2020+5 principles, as well as the vision for LA28. Whilst the full set of detailed criteria do not yet appear to be publicly available, the criteria reportedly centre on:

  • Reducing the cost and complexity of hosting the Games.
  • Engaging the best athletes and sports that put athlete health and safety first.
  • Recognising global appeal to fans across the world and host country interest.
  • Prioritising gender equality and youth relevance.
  • Upholding integrity and fairness to support clean sports. 
  • Supporting environmental sustainability.

The Olympic Programme Commission analyses the proposed additional sports, as well as previous Olympic Games programmes, to form proposals for consideration by the IOC. The Commission is responsible for taking various considerations into account, including:

  • Developing a programme that maximises popularity, whilst containing costs and complexity.
  • Ensuring the programme remains relevant to young people by innovating and adapting to modern trends, whilst respecting history and tradition.
  • Respecting the principles and recommendations in the Olympic Agenda 2020 and Olympic Agenda 2020+5.

Ultimately, these various criteria give the IOC flexibility to review the programme for each edition of the Olympic Games and their decision may also depend on its priorities at the time and the lobbying of the relevant IF.

Why were these five sports chosen?

Various reasons were cited for the inclusion of these additional sports, in particular:

  • Baseball/softball: Primarily due to them being “iconic American sports” with global participation (four continents are represented in the world ranking top 10). Both also have significant youth appeal in the US, with baseball boasting approximately 2.2m young participants (aged 13-17) and softball featuring in the top five most popular girl’s high school sports.
  • Cricket: The sport presented a vast and largely untapped global fanbase of more than 2.5bn for the Olympics to engage. Cricket also has increasing appeal in the US, following the first edition of the Major League Cricket Twenty20 tournament earlier this year and with a growing Indian community and the men’s T20 World Cup to be hosted in the US in 2024.
  • Flag football: The non-contact variant of the most popular sport in the US is rapidly growing both domestically and internationally, such that there are approximately 20m flag football players across over 100 counties, with gender-balanced participation.
  • Lacrosse: Initially created by the Indigenous Peoples of North America, lacrosse represented a unique opportunity for LA28 to align its North American heritage with a growing youth appeal.
  • Squash: Following several failed bids to be included in the Olympics, squash will make its debut at LA28 with the IOC recognising its rapid growth, in particular amongst young people, having seen an 87% increase in participation between 2015-2019 in the US.

What happens when sports no longer fulfil the eligibility or selection criteria?

If a sport no longer meets the selection criteria, it may not be included in the initial sports programme. For instance, two long-standing Olympic sports were provisionally omitted from the LA28 initial sports programme having failed to meet the desired criteria:

  • Modern Pentathlon: Despite being part of the Olympic Games since 1912, modern pentathlon was dropped from the LA28 initial sports programme following allegations of horse cruelty as a result of various incidents at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The IOC subsequently approved modern pentathlon’s re-inclusion in the LA28 initial sports programme in a new format, following the decision to replace horse riding with obstacle racing and the IOC acknowledging the work undertaken to reduce its costs and complexity, whilst also increasing its appeal to young people.
  • Weightlifting: A stalwart of the Olympic Games since 1920, weightlifting was likewise provisionally omitted, having been beset by various doping and corruption scandals over recent years. The IOC required the International Weightlifting Federation (“IWF“) to demonstrate an effective change of culture. Following the IWF’s implementation of governance reforms and its decision to delegate its anti-doping management to the International Testing Agency and its sanctioning to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, weightlifting has since been added to the LA28 initial sports programme.

The IOC may also impose more severe sanctions if a relevant IF fails to fulfil the eligibility criteria. The Olympic Charter provides that if an IF does so or acts in a manner likely to tarnish the reputation of the Olympic Movement, the IOC may remove the relevant sport from the programme,[8] in addition to imposing, for certain violations, suspension of the IF’s sport, disciplines and events from future programmes and withdrawal of the IF’s recognition by the IOC.[9] Notably, the IOC enforced such sanctioning powers against the International Boxing Association (“IBA“), having suspended the IBA’s recognition as an IF in 2019 and subsequently withdrawn recognition of the IBA in June 2023. This followed the investigation and lack of satisfactory progress in relation to serious concerns in the areas of finance, governance, ethics and refereeing and judging of IBA events. For the second consecutive Olympic Games, the IOC will deliver boxing events at Paris 2024 without a recognised IF.

Whilst the IOC does not currently recognise another governing body for Olympic boxing and therefore any decision regarding its inclusion at LA28 is currently on hold, there is the continued growth of the breakaway governing body “World Boxing”, which is fighting to help govern the reinstated boxing events.


[1] Olympic Charter, bye-law 1.1 to rule 45.

[2] Olympic Agenda 2020, recommendation 10(3).

[3] Olympic Charter, bye-law 3.1 to rule 45.

[4] Olympic Charter, bye-law 1.2 to rule 45.

[5] Olympic Charter, bye-law 2.2 to rule 45.

[6] Olympic Charter, bye-law 1.3 to rule 45; rule 25.

[7] Olympic Charter, rule 25; rule 45(3).

[8] Olympic Charter, bye-law 3.3 to rule 45.

[9] Olympic Charter, rule 59(1.2).

 

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