With five players in the world’s top 20, Egypt excels at squash, but no one seems to pay any attention, neither in Egypt nor in the Olympics which refuses to take the sport in.
Breaking squash into the mainstream sport of football isn t easy in this or any other country. But it’s odd why the Olympics, too, continues to snub squash when in fact it is a classic Olympic sport. If you’re going to have a racquet sport in the Games, as is tennis, badminton and ping-pong, it should be squash. It’s a real battle of skill. It’s the most unforgiving of sports, punishing on both mind and body. And as a competitive sport, there is no equal. It’s just you, your opponent, a wall and a small fast moving ball.
The game still has something of a middle-aged sales director image problem. But it has adapted itself to the challenge.
For one, spectators now get a fantastic view of the action and the surroundings through new glass courts pleasing to the eye (the courts can be erected almost anywhere, as tournaments in front of the Pyramids or in Hurghada attest) and anything they miss is replayed on flat screens hanging from the ceiling.
The screens also keep spectators up to speed with stats and on-court interviews are conducted with players after matches to give fans an immediate reaction to what they have witnessed. There is a radar gun to measure who hits it hardest and a white ball against a dark background has made it easier to follow the bouncing ball.
The sport is certainly moving on the fast lane. Risking sounding like a PR pamphlet, the squash played today is fast and furious, colorful and confrontational. Lets (when you are accidentally blocked from reaching the ball and therefore allowed to replay it) and strokes (when you are illegally blocked from reaching the ball and therefore given the point) are an integral part of the game s drama. The subjective nature of these calls adds to the tension and the give-and-take between player and referee acts like a sub-plot to the main story.
The sub-plot, however, has sometimes become the main theme as players feud with refs like John McEnroe used to, so here too squash has looked for an innovative solution. The Canary Wharf tournament in the UK was trialing a majority-rule system where two referees would sit amongst the crowd and make snap judgments on let-or-stroke decisions. These two would indicate their decisions to the main referee behind them with hand signals. They re used to be just two referees and the arguments could drag on for ages. That hurt squash in the Olympics because the crowd would simply get too frustrated.
So new spectator-friendly courts, rule changes designed to promote attacking play (the T, the middle of the court where the player dictates the action, has been lowered) and a less strait-laced approach to on-court fashion are just some of the measures that have helped to update a sport that had fallen out of fashion. Egyptian Wa’el El Hindi wears a sleeveless top and long shorts like Rafael Nadal. Everybody is talking about it because it s traditionally just not squash.
What all this adds up to is that squash as a spectator or television event has never looked better. The trick now is to get it into the Olympics. With over 15 million players in 150 countries, squash fulfils the Olympic criteria of a minimum number of countries who must play a sport for it to enter the Games. What’s left is to try persuading the Olympic committee that squash is more than worthy of a place in the world’s greatest sporting spectacle.
Of course, even if squash is admitted to the Olympics, it will not be before 2016, too late for the likes of our world No 1 Amr Shabana and other team-mates. The hope though is that Egypt will continue churning out top-flight players by the time squash does become an Olympic sport.
The challenge for Egyptian squash remains two-fold then: continue to prod the Olympic committee and continue to produce world-class players. It s a case of everybody getting together, Olympic decision-makers included.