The Olympic flame could spark new beginnings for Indian squash

India’s squash players at the Hangzhou Asian Games picked up a rich haul of medals – two gold, one silver and one bronze, including an emotion-charged win over Pakistan in the men’s team final that caught the attention of sports fans back home. A potentially bigger reward, however, came days later, when squash was officially included in the programme for the Los Angeles 2028 Games.

With a group of exciting young players, and a couple of wise old hands to guide them, this could be the spark that takes squash from being a sport seen as urban and elitist to one with a wider spread in both geography and demography. Something like what rugby did, a couple of decades ago.

“This has always been a squash player’s dream,” says Asian Games bronze-medal winner Anahat Singh. “Whenever someone asked them their aim, they’d always say Asian Games because it was the biggest tournament you could play. Now, it’s the Olympics.”

Anahat is, at 15, already a veteran of two multi-sport events, the Commonwealth 2022 and Asian Gamed 2023. She can be an Olympian at 20, and still have years left in her career. At the other end of the spectrum is Saurav Ghosal (37), the veteran who has lived through the disappointment of squash coming close to the Olympics and falling short several times before. He was all smiles after the announcement, saying he was considering prolonging his career past 40 just to try and be an Olympian.

“Of course I wish I was 10 years younger,” he told reporters in Mumbai. “If the 2028 Olympics wasn’t there, I think I’d stop playing much earlier. I don’t know yet if I’m going to be able to do it. I’ve just come back from Hangzhou last week and I need some time to sit down with my team and figure out.”

Squash has come close to being included at the Olympics before in 2016 and 2020 but finally got the nod for 2028, prompting Niccolo Campriani, LA28 Sports Director, to say, “This sport has always been the bridesmaid, never the bride.”

The biggest positive in this decision will be squash’s integration into the Indian Olympic system, with all the funding and logistical support that comes with that. It could, for example, provide someone like Anahat with all the support and security right at the start of her career.

“I think it really opens up a lot of avenues for building infrastructure, taking it more to the grassroots and really making it a more broad-based sport in the country which is always a great thing for India,” Saurav said.

The timing, after the Hangzhou success, could not have been better. In fact, Indian players were discussing the potential announcement in Hangzhou with a fair degree of excitement. The men’s team final against favourites Pakistan was one of the moments of the Asiad, as Abhay Singh (25) twice fought back from the brink to win a memorable gold. Abhay, who was almost looking to call it quits due to lack of support, now hopes that being an Olympic sport can change the funding Indian squash gets.

“With squash as an Olympic sport, maybe we will start being recognised by TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme) as well. The bigger thing for me is that I’m an athlete who is not able to make money playing the sport he loves,” Abhay told ESPN.

TOPS is a government program that selects the best medal contenders for India and provides them with financial assistance and specialised support throughout their training calendar. Currently, he gets support from the government with the SAI funds, which helps to travel around to tournaments on the PSA tour. But there are many other expenses such as physio, nutritionist, sports psychologist for which he has to spend out of my own pocket. Being part of TOPS could mean foreign training, equipment, coaching camps and a monthly stipend of Rs. 50,000/- for each athlete.

The tag of Olympics can make a big difference here for the younger generation.

Already a huge change has happened in the one year. “The popularity of squash is not as much as other sports as it wasn’t an Olympic sport and it wasn’t as prominent as the others,” said Anahat, “now the popularity and the way this sport is approached, is changing now as more people are getting to about it compared to one year ago.”

The growing popularity, in part, has been down to the World Squash federation innovating the sport. Played in a transparent, glass court which can be set up any where in the world, it’s become a sport that can be hugely marketable on TV.

“We are a more broadcast-able sport now. Squash used to struggle because of its broadcast capabilities, but now with the technology we’ve got that we’ve implemented – the quality of the courts, the quality of lighting, broadcast cameras, seven cameras, the commentary – the whole package is now more exciting,” Zena Wooldridge, President of WSF, said in Mumbai.

For now, LA will only have men’s and women’s singles at the Olympics as doubles require a bigger court.

For India though, this is still the start in a sport they don’t have too big a global footprint in. There are five years now to build an ecosystem that can see India’s top squash players reach a level where it’s not just about being Olympians, but being medal contenders at major international events.

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