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On December 7, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rejected the World Athletics submission for cross-country to be considered for inclusion in the 2024 Paris Summer Olympic Games. They also rejected the women’s 50K race walk for Tokyo 2020 (2021) and both men’s and women’s 50K race walk for Paris. They may, however, accept a mixed-gender long race walk for Paris.

The IOC claim that they want to reduce the number of events and athletes taking part in the Olympic Games, however, have accepted new sports.

Breaking, a competitive version of breakdancing has been added to Paris — yes dance. Also, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing will make their debut at the Tokyo Games next summer.

The rejection by the IOC was surprising

At first blush, the announcement appeared to be a mistake. How could the IOC turn down two of the foundational events in Olympic history? Additionally, Paris 2024 is the 100th anniversary of the last time that cross-country was in the Olympic Games, at Paris 1924 — yes, the same city.

Poetic timing was never something that the IOC excelled at. Look no further than the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The IOC had an opportunity to have a 100-year anniversary of the Athens Games; the home of the original Olympics. Follow the trail of money back to the Coca-Cola Olympics; it was a derided and crass move.

I had to ask if breaking is a sport. If you have never heard of it, dancesport (competitive dancing) is governed by a global authority, the World DanceSport Federation (WDSF) located in Lausanne, Switzerland.

I reached out to the WDSF to find out more about their admission to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

The General Secretary Guillaume Felli told me, “The World DanceSport Federation (WDSF) has been the global governing body of all dance disciplines since 1957, and was officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1997, so we have long felt like a trusted and valued member of the Olympic Movement.”

That is a long time in dance years.

In contrast, foot racing dates to the Tailteann Games in Ireland between 632 BC and 1171 BC while the first recorded Olympic Games took place in 776 BC. Organised cross-country competition — as we know it today — has been around since 1837. The marathon was one of the original modern Olympic events in 1896. Running is foundational to the Olympics.

Running is the most accessible sport, but is having a tough go image-wise

Currently, Russia is banned from international competition due to systematic doping, corruption, and coverups. The cheating is pervasive throughout Russian sport, but most glaringly in athletics. Meanwhile, the most successful nation in distance running, Kenya, has nearly 60 athletes who are ineligible to compete due to doping or Athlete Biological Passport anomalies or whereabout failures.

Half of the entire finals of the women’s 1500m event in the 2012 London Olympics has been banned due to doping. Of the top-10 men’s 100m sprinters in history, eight have been suspended for doping and one was caught with drugs, but claimed they were for a friend — wink-wink. Only the very fastest sprinter, Usain Bolt (9.58), remains unblemished.

Twenty-two of the all-time fastest 50 women in the 100m event has been either implicated or banned. There was the 1988 Dubin Inquiry on Ben Johnson and Coach Charlie Francis, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) scandal, and the current NOP issues to name just a few.

Athletics is fighting an image that includes bullying by coaches including body shaming, and harassment. There are athletes with eating disorders and a newly labelled and well-documented issue called REDS.

REDS, defined by the IOC, is relative energy deficiency in sport, a complex syndrome that includes impaired physiological function affecting metabolic rate, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis, and general cardiovascular health. This is not a good image for a sport that relies primarily on the ability to take in and utilize oxygen to compete in many of its events.

The brass is tarnished

The former president of World Athletics (1999-2015) (formerly, International Association of Athletics Federations) Lamine Diack of Senegal is serving time in prison for a myriad of crimes including multiple corruption charges and breach of trust among others.

His son remains in Senegal and cannot be extradited to Paris where he is charged and convicted in absentia. Papa Massata Diack worked as an IAAF marketing consultant. The court sentenced him to five years in prison and a fine of $1.17 million.

The judge said $15 million was funnelled to the younger Diack’s companies, including commissions and money creamed off contracts and the sale of TV rights and other transactions while his father was in charge at the IAAF. Papa Massata Diack, apparently fled to Senegal after the investigation was opened in France. His father referred to him in court as a thug.

The super shoe debacle

If doping and white-collar crime are not enough, currently, the sport is going through a shoe identity issue. While athletes are damned if they don’t use newly designed shoes that apparently provide a 1-4% performance advantage, they are damned if they do too. The post-race commentary in the global running community is now as much about the shoes as it is about the runner wearing them. As the saying goes, you just can’t win.

Currently, the biggest apparel company in the world with the most dollars to spend supporting athletics has had to shut down one of its own training groups. The Nike Oregon Project (NOP) is closed because its head coach Alberto Salazar has been banned due to alleged doping practices.

The past 40 years have been a rough go for the sport of athletics. If the sport of athletics is experiencing an image problem right now, it only needs to look at itself and accept the blame.

So, care to dance?

DanceSport isn’t without its own warts. According to the publication Inside the Games (World DanceSport Federation accused of using break dancing as “Trojan horse” to get into Olympics” by Daniel Etchells Tuesday, 10 January 2017).

“A petition has been sent to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) calling for the World DanceSport Federation (WDSF) to be expelled from the Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF) amid claims the body exploited break dancing as a “Trojan horse” to “get its foot in the door of the Olympics” and ensure its place on the programme for the 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.”

However, including breaking in the Olympic Games is not a stretch if you think about it. Synchronised swimming has much in common with breaking. They both require strong physical fitness, routines to be executed correctly, and artistic impression, poise, and elements of the routines that need to be pulled off well, and likewise for figure skating.

Gymnastics has one foot in the traditional sports era and the other foot in the artistic paradigm. Gymnastics — depending on the event — requires power, control, agility, flexibility, timing, speed, and of course the art-oriented aspects of the sport, to carry out a routine, land with control, poise under great pressure, to impress judges.

Should judging be in sport?

Too late!

Some level of judging and officiating exists is in every single sport, presided over by officials, referees, umpires, judges and linesmen.

One could argue whether art or artistic impression should be included in the Olympic Games. Likewise, competitions that solely require judging to determine results are not strictly speaking “sport”. But tell that to the judges, figure skating and synchronised swimming and gymnastics are TV darlings and are never going to go away.

It’s also about money. DanceSport’s breaking will bring a whole new audience to the Olympic Games. In comparison, cross-country fans are already watching the myriad of races from 100m to the marathon, field events, and the race walk competitions. The IOC wants more money out of the spectacle that is already the biggest sporting event in the world.

Summer Games versus Winter Games for cross-country? That is the question

When I found out that World Athletics was going to pitch cross-country to the IOC for the Summer Games, I was mildly disappointed. Cross-country should happen during the Winter Games. It is primarily a fall and winter event.

The IOC would apparently have to amend the IOC Charter to allow non-snow and ice events to take place.  

The Charter was only referred to permanently starting during the 1970s, although the document was created before the modern Olympics by the founder Pierre de Coubertin. It has been amended several times.

According to the IOC, “The Charter is one of the main regulatory documents of the Olympic Movement. It is the codification of the “Fundamental Principles” of Olympism, rules, and bye-laws adopted by the IOC that regulate the organisation and functioning Olympic Movement…” “…Charter defines the basic principles of the Olympic Movement, its aims and mission. In one sense, they are “a small body of essential provisions characterized by their permanence and stability.”

If the IOC wants to include cross-country running to open viewership of the Winter Games to the entire world, they will find a way. Perhaps rejecting the event for the Summer Games will afford World Athletics the opportunity to propose a Winter edition.

It is the right thing to do.

Andrew Hutchinson, author of the Complete History of Cross-Country Running told Athletics Illustrated, “It is with mixed emotions that the IOC favours breaking and surfing more than cross-country running in the Summer Olympic Games. On one hand, there is a vested tradition with the sport and with the Games, as it will be exactly 100 years ago that cross country last appeared in Paris (1924) for the Olympics.

However, the fact that World Athletics fought so hard to present the measure at all is most encouraging. The powers that be are invested in the concept, and in the coming years will refine the proposition with better strategy and insight, to better focus on those qualities the IOC is interested in highlighting for the Games.

It also leaves the door open to come up with a plan for inclusion for the Winter Games. The IOC has been more stringent with their evaluation that cross country needs to have its origin in the winter (specifically for snow or ice), and World Athletics has a chance here to create a series that emphasizes cross country in the snow. There’s plenty of history that validates this claim of cross-country being *understood* as a winter sport (with historical evidence galore), and the technology exists to layer a running course with snow to demonstrate its accessibility.

All that’s needed is a concerted effort to do it. A “no” vote now by the IOC doesn’t mean anything changes. It just means we’ll have to wait a little longer to make it happen.”

So, if dancesport is “legitimatised” due to its commonalities to gymnastic, trampolining, diving, figure skating, and synchronised swimming, then the IOC is not straying far from its current mandate. For the benefit of the games, a broader viewing audience will provide more sponsors, bums in seats, and eyes on screens.

Put the chase for money aside for a moment

Cross-country and athletics is global. It is a foundational event and is inexpensive to participate in. It is one of the most accessible sports.
Rod Dixon, 1974 World Cross Country Championship bronze medallist feels that as a foundational sport, cross-country should not be overlooked, “cross-country has its history back to 1837, Olympic History 1912–1924. It’s one of the largest participation sports in high school.

I’m not comparing cross-country with new Olympic sports; the IOC has been drawn into presenting events that draw viewers and sponsors and television rights that present dollars. Cross-country is the foundation of sports like Spartan and the (OCR) Obstacle Course Racing which is bidding for Olympic inclusion. Real cross-country with mud, hills, gates, and fences it’s about skills and ABC: agility, balance, and coordination.”

And of course, for its pure aerobic and anaerobic fitness requirements, no other sports can compete with cross-country (however, a strong case can be made for nordic skiing).

DanceSport is prepared to showcase breaking bad (in a good way)

“But for DanceSport to be showcased at the Olympic Games — the biggest stage in sport — is a massive honour and one that comes with great responsibility,” added Felli. “We got a taste of the Olympic experience when breaking debuted at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, and everyone involved, from the dancers to the judges to the organisers, all left wanting more.”

“Like all other dancesports, breaking is at the same time a sport and an art form. A b-boy or b-girl needs to combine technique, variety, performance, musicality, creativity and personality into their set, which requires both physical strength as well as mental and even spiritual strength.”

This is where traditional sportspeople have trouble with dance and routine-oriented events where the primary result is judged. Additionally, personality and spirit have nothing to do with sports competition. Football (soccer) great Lionel Messi doesn’t smile and pose before scoring, Wayne Gretzky was a tough interview — a bit dry, Michael Jordan was tough on his teammates, Barry Bonds had the personality of a wildebeest and East African distance runners can be downright meditative-like. They are athletes first, not Broadway performers.

How does it work?

Felli explains, “we expect the format in Paris 2024 to be the same as that used for the Breaking events at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires 2018. Namely: A round-robin qualification phase for b-boys and b-girls on Day 1 followed by the knockout phase (quarterfinals, semifinals and finals) on Day 2.

The competition consists of 1 vs 1 battles between two b-boys or two b-girls. Each battle consists of a fixed number of rounds (usually two rounds with a tiebreaker if necessary). In each round, one breaker performs first followed by their opponent, each set at a maximum of 60 seconds per breaker, with the judges deciding which performance is best according to a set of criteria.

With Paris 2024 now on the horizon, the WDSF is excited for the challenge, humbled by the opportunity, and 100 percent ready to organise a Breaking event for the ages. We will work hand in hand with the breaking community to ensure that the heart, soul and spirit of breaking is not compromised, while at the same time bringing a new energy and flavour to the Olympic Games.

At the end of the day, the 32-best b-boys and b-girls in the world at the time will be competing at Paris 2024, and they will be the best ambassadors to show the world what breaking and dancesport is all about. We have every confidence that Olympic fans around the globe will be won over by the competition in Paris and, hopefully, at the same time become interested to learn more about breaking and other dancesport disciplines in the process.”

While the IOC continues to chase the almighty dollar, even if it means changing what the Olympics were originally all about, then let’s hope breaking is good for the Olympics. May the revenue that the governing body so desires grow. And on that note, cross-country running will do just the same if included in the Winter Olympics. It is the right thing to do.