Monday, March 1, 2010

Has the time arrived for Olympic bowling?

Except as an exhibition sport, the Olympic games have never featured bowling, and it is not clear why. Let's start with the obvious question. Could bowling even qualify as an Olympic sport? Well, according to the I.O.C.:

To make it onto the Olympic programme, a sport first has to be recognised: it must be administered by an International Federation which ensures that the sport's activities follow the Olympic Charter. If it is widely practised around the world and meets a number of criteria established by the IOC session, a recognised sport may be added to the Olympic programme on the recommendation of the IOC's Olympic Programme Commission.

The first part of this is easy. Yes, bowling has an International Federation. It is the Fédération Internationale des Quilleurs, or FIQ. It has existed for more than 50 years and has been recognized for more than 30 years by the IOC as the governing body of the sport. The sport is definitely "widely practised" around the world. I will demonstrate this using a series of links throughout the post marked with asterisks, such as this one (*); click on any one and you will be transported to the website of a national bowling federation from around the world. All that remains, then, is whether bowling meets "a number of criteria", which are unspecified in this brief description, and frankly, I don't feel like trying to find them. (*) So, let's take another tact. What other sports are recognized by the IOC?

Well, one obvious comparison is curling. With curling, we can fairly easily dispel the notion that athletes must look athletic to compete in the Olympics (*). We could make the same argument about the 50m pistol competition, and yes, it is an Olympic sport. Here are some more obscure ones. Have you ever watched the Equestrian Eventing competition? Or what about a Canoe Slalom race? Shall I continue? Yep, badminton and ping pong qualify as Olympic. If you argue that bowling is simply a recreational activity, how is badminton any different? (*) Or BMX cycling?

My point is not to denigrate any of these fine sports. It is simply to argue that if all of these sports, not to mention forty or so others, qualify as Olympics worthy, why not bowling? I just don't understand what the IOC has against tenpins. I must applaud the USBC's work in this regard. (*) Last September, they published an article about efforts to get the sport into the Games, in which Kevin Dornberger is quoted saying, "This is a world effort... It cannot just be a United States effort or it will fail. We need more resources than that to succeed." Kevin may have hit the nail on the head.

I think here we may have the root of the problem. (*) If it is perceived that bowling is a sport that is ultimately American, then its Olympic bid will ultimately fail. This is why American football does not appear in the Olympics. From the perspective of a member of the IOC, I can see this argument being made quite successfully, except that over the long term, it doesn't really work. (*) Think of Olympic baseball or basketball, sports that were once very gringo, but now are global and globally competitive (*). But maybe that's the problem. Bowling is not yet truly internationally competitive. There are quite a few non-American bowlers who have been successful (e.g., Jason Belmonte [Australia], Osku Palermo [Finland], Shalin Zulkifli [Malaysia]), but I bet the IOC knows that if they were to allow Olympic bowling at this point in time, whether as a team or individual sport, the podium would be dominated by Americans(*), and as long as that is the case, I wouldn't hold your breath. (*)

A related problem is organization. If bowling wants to move beyond an American phenomenon, it really needs to get organized internationally. If you go to the website of the World Tenpin Bowling Association, a subsidiary of the FIQ, you will see that a large number of countries have national bowling associations on paper. For example, this link will take you to the "Asian Zone". Here, you will be surprised to discover that even Bahrain, Iran, and Mongolia have national bowling organizations, but do they really? All that is listed for each of these countries (and in fact for most countries on this website) is an email address; there is no URL for a website. It gives the impression that most of the efforts to organize the sport have been American, despite the impressive list of participating countries that could be compiled. Until bowlers in a large number of nations find the will to truly organize and produce organizations like the USBC and websites like, the argument that bowling is an international sport will likely fail (in spite of *, *, and *)

So has the time arrive arrived for Olympic bowling? As much I would like to see the sport in the Olympic games and as much as it pains me to say so, I would need some more convincing to believe that we have reached that moment in time. As more international bowlers become competitive in the PBA and more countries organize competitive bowling associations, bowling's chances will become better. Then again, you could probably say the same thing about ping pong or badminton. But argument by denigration of your competitors is unlikely to be a compelling approach. The USBC needs to work behind the scenes and let the FIQ do the heavy lifting, and I think it's pretty clear they know that.

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