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23/05/2005
Khan's quest for Olympic inclusion

Matthew Syed interviews Jahangir Khan

Reproduced by kind permission of 'The Times.'

The grand man of squash talks about his 2012 Games mission

DO YOU, like me, shudder at the prospect of golf or rugby union joining the Olympic Games? It is bad enough having to put up with the likes of football and tennis, whose athletes seem to regard the greatest sporting event on earth as a second holiday.

Which is one of the reasons why squash ought to be at the top of the ballot paper when the IOC votes on July 8 as to which sports, if any, to add to the Games of 2012. If members of the blazered brigade bestow their favours upon this cruelly overlooked sport, they can at least be assured that the players will express their gratitude by fighting for gold as if their lives depended on it.

Jahangir Khan, who went unbeaten for five years, seven months and one day during the 1980s, summed up what Olympic status would mean. “It would give the sport an unbelievable boost,” he said. “The Olympics would instantly become the most prestigious title, which would make for a great spectacle in 2012. Unlike some of the other candidates for inclusion, squash is a game of real athleticism.”

It certainly is. I met Khan at the Brit Insurance Super Series Finals in London and within minutes of sitting down with the great man to watch Lee Beachill against James Willstrop (two of the world’s top players, both from Pontefract, Yorkshire) I found myself wincing in sympathy. Each rally is a mini epic, transporting the players to the outer limits of exhaustion as they dance around each other in elaborate semicircles. It is near- impossible to kill a rally — the harder the ball is hit, the more it seems to bounce.

Fitness was Khan’s trump card when he was building his reputation as the sport’s greatest player, although you would not have guessed it from the paunch that has materialised since he became president of the World Squash Federation in 2002 — he giggled charmingly when teased about it.

Despite his shyness, he has a warm character with none of the neuroticism that you might expect from a sporting perfectionist who won more than 500 consecutive matches. He duly obliged when I passed him a mobile phone with my Pakistani father at the other end. He was in the kind of state that my English mother would have been had David Beckham been waiting on the line.

Although Khan is not the most cerebral leader, he is widely respected for his commitment to the sport, stretching back to the day when he first picked up a racket in his home village of Nawakali, near Peshawar. He had much to live up to — his father was world No 1 — but he surpassed all expectations, retiring in 1993 at the age of 29 with a fistful of titles, including ten British Opens in succession.

Khan clearly enjoys the ceremony of his position and seems blissfully unconcerned that the real power lies with Christian Leighton, the youthful chief executive from Venezuela, who is based at the sport’s headquarters in Hastings, East Sussex. “July 8 could change everything,” Leighton said. “We are optimistic that we will be able to demonstrate that we have significant advantages over our rivals, not least that we are a truly global sport.”

This is, perhaps, an overstatement. Unlike some other so-called minority sports, such as table tennis and badminton, squash is taken seriously in only a handful of countries. However, the same problem afflicts most of the other candidates — including rugby union, although do not whisper that too loudly around these parts. Another difficulty for squash is that it is notoriously difficult to televise effectively, despite a series of experiments involving the ball, the scoring system and the height of the tin.

The tragedy for squash is that insiders say that its quest for inclusion is doomed. For any new sport to enter, one will have to be dropped. Softball is the likeliest casualty, but in the event of its downfall it would almost certainly be replaced by rugby sevens, not least because that is the preferred choice of Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, who represented Belgium in the 15-a-side version.

This would be a travesty. Squash deserves its day in the sun. It would add to the grandeur of the Olympic experience and — call me opportunistic — the medal tally of Great Britain. All that lunging and leaping may even inspire viewers to lose weight. Possibly, even, Khan himself.

BALLOT FOR BEIJING

ON JULY 8, the IOC will decide whether to drop any of the existing 28 Olympic sports in favour of five possible replacements. No summer Games sport has been removed since polo lost out in 1936. Squash faces competition from:

Golf: An Olympic sport in 1900 and 1904, but would the multimillionaire players care?

Rugby sevens: The preferred choice of Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC.

Karate: Does the Olympics need another oriental martial art in addition to taekwondo and judo?

Roller sports: May be a problem if players wearing hoodies are dragged away by the police on suspicion of lacking respect.

 

   

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