It remains one of the more iconic moments in Olympic history: a star-spangled rocket man hovering over the Los Angeles Coliseum at the opening ceremony in 1984, heralding a new era of commercialism and pizzazz. And while history is unlikely to repeat itself when the Games returns in five years’ time, it will rhyme. For LA 2028 plans to go big and brash again.
That was made even more evident on Monday when the LA bid team confirmed the Guardian’s exclusive that five new sports – cricket, flag football, baseball/softball, lacrosse and squash – would be proposed for 2028. Most observers had expected just two to get in, given the pressures they would put on the International Olympic Committee’s quota of 10,500 athletes. Ultimately, though, both sides understood the benefits of a compromise – and saw the dollar signs stretch out from Hollywood Boulevard to Madison Avenue.
Negotiations, though, were not straightforward. The IOC wanted cricket. LA pushed hard for flag football and baseball/softball. Neither side had much interest in the other’s preferences. There were bitter arguments over money and numbers too, and relations became so strained that a decision was pushed back nearly a month. Yet, in the end, an uneasy peace was brokered.
For the IOC, the benefits of cricket inside the Olympic tent are clear. As things stand, the TV rights for the Games in India go for a handful of millions. Now it can realistically expect more like $150m, according to Michael Payne, who was the IOC’s director of marketing and TV for 20 years.
“The TV revenue from India is currently peanuts,” he says. “And if you are Thomas Bach at the IOC, with a mission to promote the Olympic movement around the world, you look at your globe and you’re doing pretty well except for one glaring geographic hole: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And one way to short circuit that is to put their sporting religion into the Olympic programme.”
However Payne, who is among the most astute observers of the Olympic movement, says that it was even more important for cricket to squeeze on to the programme for LA as it now has a real shot of becoming a permanent fixture in the Games. “Would cricket have got into Brisbane 2032? No question. But then it would have risked being a one-time show, and cricket wouldn’t have had any momentum to get on to the 2036 programme. Now, if it delivers in 2028, it has a pretty solid chance of going fully on the Olympic programme.”
There are some who doubt that cricket needs the Olympics. The Indian Premier League, after all, is one of the biggest leagues in the world, with players earning an average salary of $5.3m. But Payne disagrees. “To understand what this could do to catapult cricket on to a world stage, go back to the Barcelona Games in 1992 and look at the success of basketball. There is a night and day difference between the state of the NBA internationally pre- and post-1992.”
The figures back that up. On opening day of the 1991-92 season, NBA rosters included just 23 international players from 18 countries. Last season there were 120 players from 40.
But what of flag football, an American football variant involving teams of five players, where tackles are made by pulling a flag off a player’s belt? Many are unimpressed that a sport barely played outside the US should get an Olympic spot. However Payne, while not a true believer, can see the benefits. “When it was first mentioned to me, I thought: ‘Come on, who’s smoking what?’ But imagine what six months of NFL promotion will do for NBC, their Olympic telecast and Los Angeles? It will create the noise to sell the airtime and be a massive promotional buildup. It’s a real gamechanger.”
Some tensions inevitably still linger. In the buildup to Paris 2024, the IOC made a great noise about embracing urban sports. Yet LA has ditched breakdance, perhaps the most urban sport of all. Then there is the question of athlete numbers – and whether some sports might lose medal events to ensure the 10,500 quota is met.
None of those thorny issues is expected to rise to the surface when the IOC session meets in Mumbai on Sunday. It is there that the five sports for LA will be ratified – and the smiles will, uniformly, break out.