SNOOKER'S OLYMPIC AMBITIONS

SNOOKER'S OLYMPIC AMBITIONS

THE COMMONWEALTH GAMES are proving to be a great success in Glasgow, with the limelight being shared by sportsmen and women usually ignored by a media obsessed with football.

Among the array of sports featuring in the Games, there is no snooker. I could probably write a book on the reasons why but at the heart of it lies not the fact that snooker is a non-physical sport – so are shooting and lawn bowls, and they are both in the Games programme – but more a catalogue of historic missed opportunities by the WPBSA.

The World Confederation of Billiard Sports (WCBS) was set up in the 1990s as an umbrella organisation for all cue sports governing bodies, bringing together snooker, billiards, carom and pool associations. Its ultimate aim was to get some, and preferably all, of these sports into the Olympic Games.

They had been included in the Asian Games and the World Games. The latter event exists for sports ratified by the International Olympic Committee but not part of the Olympic Games programme. Snooker has thus sat alongside sports such as trampolining (where competitors have their ups and downs), Tug of War and Dragon Boat Racing. One year, leading official Lawrie Annandale went to referee and, because of withdrawals, ending up playing.

It was hoped snooker would eventually make it out of this somewhat eccentric sporting festival and graduate to the Olympics but it is yet to happen.

Among the various foul-ups by the WPBSA over the years, one of their (former) executives, who had lunched well but not wisely, fell asleep in a WCBS meeting.

In China in 2005 the WPBSA failed to send anyone to a reception with Beijing organisers of the 2008 Olympics who were looking for sports to include. This was at a time where snooker was taking off in China with the emergence of Ding Junhui.

But, most damagingly, when Sir Rodney Walker was WPBSA chairman the governing body stopped co-operating with the WCBS, dealing its credibility as umbrella organisation for worldwide cue sports a massive blow.

When Jason Ferguson returned to the WPBSA chairmanship in 2010 he began to put right some of the wrongs, restoring the WPBSA’s links with WCBS. Snooker was due to be dropped from the 2013 World Games but he lobbied hard for a rethink and the gold was eventually won by India’s Aditya Mehta.

In a piece I wrote for Al Jazeera Sport earlier this year, Ferguson told me the earliest Olympics in which snooker could feasibly be included is 2024.

Inclusion in the Commonwealths would have made great sense as they are being staged in Scotland, which has produced four world snooker champions and plenty of other top players.

In 1997, Stephen Hendry flew to Malaysia on behalf of the game to lobby ahead of the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. There is a report of this in the 1998 World Championship programme, which includes this quote from a WPBSA executive: “Plenty of work still needs to be done, but with the support of players, officials and the snooker public I’m sure we can achieve our ultimate objective of having cue sports competitors in the Olympic, Commonwealth and Asian Games.”

Except, the work wasn’t done and cue sports aren’t in any of these three events, having been dropped from the Asian Games.

 Stephen Hendry: lobbied for Commonwealth inclusion 17 years ago

Stephen Hendry: lobbied for Commonwealth inclusion 17 years ago

Some would argue that the World Championship is the pinnacle for snooker so why bother with the Olympics, the Commonwealths or anything else? It’s a fair enough point but a narrow one because it misses something important, which is that these great international events create a showcase, a platform. Just as you might go to the Glastonbury festival to see one particular band and end up coming across all sorts of music you’d never heard before, so an Olympics can introduce viewers to sports and personalities they had never previously considered.

I’d never heard of Scottish swimmer Ross Murdoch until last week but the scenes of him first shocked beyond belief that he’d won gold in the 200m breaststroke and then crying his eyes out on the podium are among the most memorable of the sporting year.

An Olympic or Commonwealth Games would provide a stage for snooker to be seen around the world. The professional game is still dominated by Brits because its traditional base is in Britain but players play in all sorts of far off locations. In the World Games last year there were players from Guatemala, Brazil and Iran, who of course already have an IBSF world amateur champion in Hossein Vafaei.

Neil Robertson, a proud Australian, would have been among the favourites for Commonwealth gold, with Mehta and Pankaj Advani of India also providing a challenge to the UK players.

Ferguson told me: “It’s my mission to get snooker into the Olympics. People say snooker will suffer because it isn’t physical but I’ve read the Olympic Charter from cover to cover and it’s very clear that its sports are about performance of the mind, body and will. 

“We have an international network of 90 national governing bodies organising amateur tournaments. Our major events are broadcast to 80 countries and are watched by 450 million people. Snooker is regularly in the top ten of the most-watched sports in many countries and in some it’s second behind football.”

In fact snooker was in the Paralympics as recently as 1988 but years and years have passed with things being allowed to drift.

Sport has the power to unite, although the politics of sport often divides. More or less, the politics of snooker has receded into memory so if it is to ever gain entry into the hallowed halls of a major Games, its best chance is right now, even if it will still take many years for best laid plans to bear fruit.

 

Photographs by Monique Limbos.