I’m off to watch the football tonight at Wembley. It’s the big match, as the titans of Gabon take on the giants of South Korea (making them both seem normal-sized). I’m honestly quite excited about it, despite the high probability that I will not have heard of a single player (apart from Ji Dong-Won of Sunderland, oddly enough).
But you have to wonder whether football, the global sporting behemoth, really needs to be a part of the Olympic Games at all. Being an Olympic gold medal winner should, really, be the crowning glory of a sportsperson’s career. But what do we remember about Lionel Messi: his 2008 Olympic gold, or the Champions League and La Liga titles with Barcelona? Spain won the gold on home ground in 1992, but I didn’t know that until a moment ago; when they won the 2008 European Championships, most commenters hailed it as their first “major tournament win”.
There are a few other sports like that, to which the Olympics add little extra glory. Tennis: would Roger Federer swap any of his Grand Slam titles for Olympic gold? Would Andy Murray rather win the Olympics or Wimbledon? Basketball is an obvious one, and in the Winter Games ice hockey: they’re overshadowed by the US national leagues, although admittedly it’s the biggest national-team tournament in either sport. In Rio in 2016 golf will be brought back in after a 112-year absence, but surely Rory McIlroy will still have his sights set on the Open.
But 2016 also shows us how this could be avoided. Rugby is coming back: not union or league, but rugby sevens, the small-sided version of the game, faster and higher-scoring than the full battle-of-attrition 15-a-side version. It will, undoubtedly, be the most important event in the rugby sevens calendar. (And it’ll be won by loads of South Pacific teams, I expect.) Why not do something similar for football? Introduce futsal or beach football or five-a-side at the Olympics, and lose the 11-a-side version (at least in the men’s: the Olympics definitely is the biggest women’s football tournament in the world). Drop tennis, but bring in squash, and perhaps real tennis. Drop golf, bring in crazy golf (only joking. But do drop golf).
No one wants to see bored superstars competing in the Olympics as an afterthought. But the unheralded versions of the global supersports don’t get enough attention; the Olympics should be the place to put them in the spotlight.