How does a sport make it into the Olympic Games?
My red rover skills are still first rate. Can I still have an Olympic career?
Millions of you have written asking how a sport makes it into the Olympic Games. I don't normally think about such deep questions but when I saw the 3-on-3 basketball tournament in the Tokyo games and heard that break dancing ("Let's break!") was scheduled for Paris in 2024, I started wondering if there were any rules at all for what could end up as an Olympic sport. I still have what could be Olympic caliber red rover skills, so naturally I'm interested. I found that there are numerous rules governing what's included in the Olympic program.
Getting a sport approved as an Olympic sport is controlled solely by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). There are usually 25 to 30 sports in each staging of the Games. At one point, host cities could petition the IOC to add demonstration sports to the program. As of 1992 this has been discontinued although an exception was made in 2008 when wushu was demonstrated in Beijing. Though the list may seem small the IOC uses a taxonomy of sports, disciplines, and events. In the winter games, for example, the sport of skiing is divided into six disciplines of cross country, ski jumping, freestyle, alpine, nordic, and snowboarding; and then into a number of events within each discipline. In the summer Games, the sport of aquatics consists of artistic swimming, diving, water polo, swimming, and marathon swimming as disciplines, which are then further divided into various events for each discipline. In Tokyo 33 sports consisting of 46 disciplines contested 340 events.
Thanks for reading The Sportkid Newsletter! Subscribe for free. New posts every two weeks.
Before a sport (or one or more of its disciplines) is even considered for the Olympic list though it has to be governed by a recognized international federation and organized in at least 75 countries across four continents. The IOC uses this criteria as an indication of popularity. After the popularity requirement is met the IOC can recognize the federation and any disciplines it governs. The final program for each Olympic Games though is decided by the IOC and not all sports or their various disciplines are included.
If you're wondering, 3-on-3 basketball is one of two approved disciplines governed by the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA). Basketball first appeared in the 1904 Games in St. Louis and then again in the 1924 Games in Paris. It has been included in the Olympic program continuously since the 1936 Games in Berlin. 3-on-3 basketball made its first appearance in Tokyo (2020) and will appear again in Paris (2024).
There are several other constraints besides official recognition of the international federation. The Games have grown more expensive through the years not only to organize and conduct but also to secure through the Olympic bidding process, so cost is a concern. The IOC has implemented two strategies to help control the cost.
In 1960, 5300 athletes attended the Rome Olympiad and since then that number has doubled to over 10,000 or more competitors in every staging since 1996. While it is not an official limit, 10,500 athletes is considered an acceptable number of participants in the eyes of the IOC and the sport program can be adjusted to maintain the number of participants around that level. By adjusting the program, raising Olympic 'B' qualification standards in some sports, or by limiting entries under the universality rule, the IOC has some control over the total number of participants.
The cost of each Games is borne by the host city and it has become more difficult to secure a wide range of possible hosts through the bidding process. As a result the IOC has abandoned the bidding system in favor of long-term discussions and engagement with specific and preferred host cities. When Brisbane was named as the host for the 2032 Games some speculated that it was the only bidder and that things looked dark for the Games future. However, Brisbane was the first host named under the new engagement strategy although it could also be argued that Los Angeles, the 2028 host city, was the first. During the bidding for the 2024 Games several bidders withdrew leaving only Paris and Los Angeles in the mix. Paris was selected for 2024 and it was decided to award the 2028 Games to LA at the same time, thus Los Angeles was either the first city selected under the new scheme or perhaps it was a serendipitous series of events that sparked the idea to ditch bidding and pursue engagement.
Construction of new venues is another expense that most people think of when the cost of the Games is discussed. Security, housing and transport infrastructure are also major expenses for some cities. The IOC cannot control these costs but by limiting the number of sports and suggesting a number of total participants costs can be indirectly controlled.
Commonwealth and SEA Games
Other multi-sport events have slightly different methods for choosing the sports to contest in each staging. The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has 20 sports that are required to be included in each edition of the Commonwealth Games. These include 16 core sports and four para sports. Each host may also include a number of sports from an 'optional' list approved by the CGF. The CGF uses the sport, discipline, event hierarchy similar to the IOC.
The Southeast Asian Games (SEA) sets no official limit as to the number of sports that can be contested in the biennial event. Aside from offering many Olympic sports, SEA Games hosts — countries, not cities as in the Olympics — frequently schedule traditional sports found in several Southeast Asian countries, or sports popular in the host country or ones in which the host excels. This is the source of some controversy as hosts have been known to pad the sport program with events in which they are likely to win medals. Core sports for the SEA Games include aquatics, athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, cycling, football, shooting, table tennis, tennis, volleyball, and weightlifting.
After 1985, when host Thailand had 18 sports on the program, the number of sports contested in the SEA Games has steadily increased. In 1987, Jakarta hosted 26 sports and in 2019 the Philippines had a whopping 56 sports on the program. Along with the ballooning list of sports comes an increasing number of participants and support staff, and a need for larger, more modern facilities, thus stressing some already fragile Southeast Asian economies. The large sport program has caused some countries to back out of the agreed up rotation of hosting duties even though an economically stressed host could, in theory, revert back to the 12 core sports if it wanted.
To this observer the SEA Games model is headed for a reckoning. It is expected that the host will 'win' the Games by virtue of the gold medal count. Smaller countries in the region are reluctant to host because they cannot compete against larger countries not only in terms of overall athletic firepower but economically as well. A small host who fails to capture the most gold medals and who spends large amounts of money on their hosting duties will, without a doubt, face criticism at home.
It seems getting red rover into the Olympic Games may be a bit more of a challenge than I thought.