It’s the sport of choice for Homer Simpson and the Big Lebowski, and it’s enjoyed periodically by millions – including Rihanna. So it shouldn’t be surprising that tenpin bowling made it to the big time last week by joining the shortlist of new sports for the Olympics.
Eight sports – tenpin bowling, surfing, baseball and softball, karate, roller sports, climbing, squash and wushu – presented their case for inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The list had been culled from 30 nominated sports (including sumo, chess and American football).
But it was tenpin bowling’s application that generated the most debate in the media and the wider public. And, for some reason, most commentary was critical and sceptical of bowling.
New sports are considered for each Olympics. Next year’s Rio Olympics will reintroduce golf and include rugby sevens for the first time. At the 2012 London Olympics, softball and baseball were excluded from the competition.
The make-up of the Olympic sporting program always generates significant publicity and controversy. Consider the appearance of sports such as roque (1904), Australian Rules football (1956) and motor sports (1900) to mention a few.
World sporting organisations aim for inclusion in the Olympics because entry provides legitimacy, and with legitimacy comes growth and consolidation of the sport. After sports such as tug-of-war (1900-1920), rackets (1908) and croquet (1900) were excluded from the Olympic Games, for instance, they were relegated to the dustbin of world sport.
Clearly, the stakes are high. Sports scramble for Olympic status as well as fight against exclusion. Individual sports need the Olympics, not the other way around. The only exception to this is football (soccer, to some) because the pinnacle of that sport – the FIFA World Cup – is even bigger than the Olympics.
To minimise the controversy and politicisation of Olympic inclusion, the International Olympic Committee has produced criteria for the inclusion process. Basically, the sport must have an international presence and add value to the Olympic Games as well as to the values set out in the Olympic charter.
Definitely a contender
Tenpin bowling arguably does all this – and a whole lot more. Its presence in the Olympics can be justified on many grounds.
1. A worldwide sport
It’s unclear how many people bowl regularly and the figures vary, although it’s widely accepted that the sport clearly addresses this Olympic criterion (played in four continents in more than 100 countries by men, and in three continents and more than 40 countries by women).
There are competitive players and social players; there are young players and old players; and there are professional players and amateur players. Although the strength of the sport clearly lies in the United States and Japan.
2. A competitive sport
Bowling has competition at its core, with rules and a unique scoring system that includes “frames”, “rolls”, “strikes” and “spares”. This is not the case for say, surfing which, apart from being very subjective when it comes to judging, is a sport formed to counter the competition that already existed in surf lifesaving competition.
The sport’s governing body, World Bowling, was formed in 1952 and the first world championships took place in 1954. And a prestigious contest between the United States and Europe called the Weber Cup takes place annually. What’s more, it has been a Commonwealth sport since 1998 when 18 countries first contested and five medals were awarded.
3. A long tradition
The sport adds to the Olympic ideal; unlike BMX riding, trampoline and other Olympic sports, bowling has a long tradition dating back to the ancient Egyptians who played a sport with “pins” and “balls”.
While not on the program of the ancient Olympic Games, bowling variations have been played by many civilisations throughout history. In Australia, it’s claimed American and Germans played the sport during the 1850s Victorian gold rush.
4. A drug-free sport
Bowling wouldn’t produce dramas such as the ones stemming from the recent allegations of doping by track and field athletes at the 2012 London Olympics and positive steroid tests of Bulgarian weightlifters. Indeed, doping provides no benefit in this particular sport, unless you regard beer as performance enhancing (darts would face the same challenge).
5. An inclusive sport
Finally, unlike most Olympic sports, bowling is played by both able-bodied and disabled athletes. In fact, it’s a massive disability sport, which has been adapted to meet individual physical needs through the use of ramps. And it’s very popular in the Special Olympics.
If Olympism champions equality, there’s no better exponent of this than bowling.
A winner’s game
Bowling’s lack of athleticism is sometimes used against it, although if shooting and archery are core Olympic sports, there’s little doubt that it could be as well.
But there’s another reason Australia, in particular, should support bowling’s inclusion in the Olympics. It’s not well known that in the 20th century, especially when American Avery Brundage was the president of the International Olympic Committee (1952-1972) at the height of the Cold War, sports were included if they had the potential for the United States to win medals.
The US tried to sneak tenpin bowling into the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as an exhibition sport, for instance, because they were clearly the dominant world bowling power. This practice explains the appearance of sports such as synchronised swimming in the Games.
Australia should continue this “unwritten” law and fully support the introduction of tenpin bowling because we might medal; the undisputed tenpin bowling world champion is Australian Jason Belmonte, the unorthodox two-handed bowler from Orange in country New South Wales.
The final decision will not be made until August 2016, just prior to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. But this sport has the ability to unite the world … and Homer Simpson would be delighted.