It was announced recently that cricket is to return to the Olympics at the 2028 games in Los Angeles. This comes after a 128-year gap since cricket’s sole previous inclusion in the premier multi-sports event and has been long wished for by many in the associate cricket world.
Cricket was originally scheduled in the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 but insufficient entries were received, and the tournament was cancelled. In 1900, four entries were received, but Belgium and the Netherlands withdrew leaving teams representing Great Britain and France.
In reality, neither team was nationally selected. The team representing Great Britain – or England as they were called in local advertising – was in fact the Devon & Somerset Wanderers, a touring side made of club cricketers from those two counties that had been formed six years prior. Only two members of the team had played first-class cricket – Montagu Toller played six times for Somerset in 1897 and Alfred Bowerman had played once earlier that year and would do so again in 1905.
The French team was almost entirely made up of British residents of Paris and came from two clubs – the Union Club and the Standard Athletic Club.
Unlike the tightly organised event the Olympics are today, the 1900 games were a sprawling affair that started in May and finished in October. Sports were held that have never been held at any Olympics since such as motor-racing, ballooning, croquet, underwater swimming, a swimming obstacle race and live pigeon shooting. It is thought that many of the participants had no idea that they had taken part in the Olympics.
After the withdrawal of Belgium and the Netherlands, the cricket “tournament” consisted of a single two-day match between the British and French sides. Great Britain won the match by 158 runs, though France very nearly held on for a draw as only five minutes of play remained when they lost their final wicket.
The winners were awarded silver medals with France receiving bronze medals and miniature statues of the Eiffel Tower, the latter being an ironic twist given that the club that provided most players – the Standard Athletic Club – had been founded by English workers who had moved to Paris to help build the Eiffel Tower. The IOC now counts Great Britain as gold medallists and a “Mixed team” as silver medallists.
An attempt was made to organise a cricket tournament at the 1904 Olympics in St Louis. A Philadelphia side – featuring the legendary Bart King – was selected but not enough other entries were received, and the tournament was, as in 1896, cancelled.
Cricket would not return to a multi-sports event until 1979 when a men’s 50-over tournament was included in that year’s South Pacific Games in Fiji, with Papua New Guinea beating the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the final. A 50-over tournament featured in those games again in 1987, 1991, 2003 and 2007, before switching to T20 cricket for the 2011 games – now the Pacific Games in New Caledonia. The 2015 games had a women’s tournament for the first time, as did the 2019 games. The sport is absent from this year’s event, and will not be featured in 2027 either. Papua New Guinea have won men’s gold at each event except 2015 when Vanuatu won, whilst Samoa have won both women’s gold medals.
A 16-team men’s 50-over tournament featured at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur with South Africa beating Australia in the final to win gold, but was dropped for the 2002 games in Manchester.
It wasn’t until the beginning of T20 cricket that serious conversations began about cricket returning to the Olympics, with the short format enabling more games to be played each day and thus easier to condense a tournament into the Olympic time frame.
The launch of the IPL and its massive TV deals really grabbed the interest of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). They have long targeted the Indian market as an area to develop and felt that cricket was the best way to get bigger TV rights deals out of the subcontinent.
Cricket was included in the Asian Games in China in 2010 with Bangladesh and Pakistan winning gold in men’s and women’s T20 tournaments respectively, and again in 2014 in South Korea with Sri Lanka and Pakistan taking home gold medals. A men’s Under-21 tournament was held at the 2010 South Asian games with Bangladesh winning gold.
However the BCCI did not send Indian teams to any of those games and, alongside the ECB, were long hold-outs on cricket’s possible inclusion in the Olympics. The BCCI were not keen on having any government oversight should their teams – even briefly – come under the control of the Indian National Olympic Committee, whilst the ECB were concerned about the impact on the English home international season, claiming that an Olympic cricket tournament would cause four Test matches to be dropped from the season, a claim that didn’t stand up to much scrutiny given that the Olympics only lasts two weeks.
For a period around a decade ago, it almost became a cliché that any press release about ICC Board meetings would include something along the lines of “The ICC board received an update on potential Olympic inclusion and agreed to discuss the matter at a later date”.
The ECB dropped their opposition in 2015 and two years later ICC Chief Executive Dave Richardson was reported to have said that “the time is right” for Olympic cricket.
That year cricket was included in the South East Asia Games in Kuala Lumpur, with Singapore winning a men’s T20 tournament, Malaysia winning a men’s 50-over tournament and Thailand a women’s T20 tournament. It wasn’t included in the Asian Games in 2018 but was included in the following year’s South Asian Games with Bangladesh winning gold in both the men’s and women’s T20 tournaments.
In 2020, USA Cricket said that one of its goals was to get cricket into the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and later that year the BCCI finally dropped its opposition to Olympic cricket when it decided to back the sport’s inclusion in the 2028 games at its annual meeting.
An eight team women’s T20 tournament was featured at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham with Australia winning gold. India featured at a multi-sports event for the first time and were silver medallists.
In 2021, the ICC had announced its intention to bid for Olympic inclusion in 2028, though most observers at the time felt that the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane were a more likely return date.
A sprawling set of cricket tournaments were held at the 2023 South East Asian Games in Cambodia, with gold medals awarded for both men and women in 50-overs, T20, T10 and Sixes. Hosts Cambodia – somewhat controversially – took home golds in all the men’s events except the Sixes, which were won by Singapore. Thailand won golds in the women’s 50-over, T20 and T10 events and did not participate in the Sixes, which were won by Indonesia.
Cricket returned to the Asian Games in China in 2023 – postponed from 2022 – with India participating for the first time – and promptly took home gold in both the men’s and women’s T20 tournaments. The sport will feature at the African Games for the first time next year.
In August 2022, the local organising committee shortlisted nine potential additional events for Los Angeles 2028. Alongside cricket were baseball/softball, breakdance, flag football (a non-contact version of American football), karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, squash and motorsport.
By last month, breakdance, karate, kickboxing and motorsport were dropped from the list set to be voted on at an IOC meeting on 16th October, which was held in Mumbai during the ongoing Men’s ODI World Cup. All five received approval for inclusion and the long wait for cricket’s return to the games was over.
There are still questions to answer about how many teams will be involved, how qualifying would be done and if the hosts will get an automatic entry. The initial proposal suggested six teams qualifying through the ICC rankings for men and women with no automatic place for the USA, and didn’t address how the cases of Great Britain – which would be made up of several ICC members either in whole or in part – the West Indies – which would compete either separately or combined with other nations, including Great Britain – or Ireland – where athletes from Northern Ireland can choose whether to compete for the Republic of Ireland or Great Britain – would be handled.
The impact that Olympic cricket would have on the teams that end up playing in the event in five years’ time is minimal. They will likely be teams that are already from well off cricket boards. But for many ICC associate members the impact would be immense.
In countries with governments that provide funding for sports, Olympic sports are usually the ones with the highest priority. Some ICC members could be set to receive government funding that could dwarf the funding they receive from the ICC, in some cases possibly stretching to 10 times their ICC funding, even if they have little to no chance of qualifying.
This could likely turbocharge the criminally underfunded ICC development programme, with many countries possibly even able to professionalise their national programmes for the first time.
Even in countries that don’t provide funding for Olympic sports, cricket’s inclusion will still have benefits, and has been warmly welcomed by many. Speaking to CricketEurope, Estonian Cricket Association Operations Manager Terry O’Connor said that “the one crucial way that every non-traditional cricket country will benefit is that it will legitimise cricket as a global sport, to our Olympic committees, our governments at all levels, our media and most importantly the general populace.”
He continued, “Cricket will be on free to air TV, for many countries for the first time ever, and it will make it significantly easier for us to get into schools, to partner with other sports and sporting bodies, so this is a huge boost to cricket everywhere.
This was echoed by Craig White, Secretary of the Mexican Cricket Association, who said “it will really raise the visibility of cricket in Mexico because cricket will be on the television, and the Mexican government will further know about cricket because it is at a world event that Mexico already competes in.”
In a press release, Vanuatu Cricket Association CEO Tim Cutler said, “From the outside, many may wonder how a six-team men’s and women’s Olympic event will benefit the game’s global growth. However, considering the additional funding, access to facilities and support, as well as affirming its legitimacy as a global sport in many markets where Olympic inclusion is a must-have for support from government and the like, the positive impact this will have on cricket worldwide cannot be overstated.”
The impact on the Olympics itself is a positive one, opening itself up to an audience in India that previously has not had much interest in the event. One recent estimate had cricket’s inclusion adding US$100 million to the value of the Olympic TV rights in the country.
With cricket a likely inclusion in Brisbane in 2032 and India keen on bidding for the 2036 games, cricket could find itself becoming entrenched within the Olympics, possibly even becoming a permanent part. At a time when the future of much of international cricket is uncertain, the inclusion of cricket in the Olympics is most welcome, for several reasons. Hopefully, the ICC won’t mess it up.