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Opinion: Lacrosse’s biggest challenge yet: Olympic inclusion

Olympic veteran journalist Karen Rosen takes a deep dive into lacrosse’s Olympic journey and why she thinks lacrosse ‘checks all of the boxes’

Pierre de Coubertin has inspired generations of athletes with his most famous quote: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.”  

But what if you can’t take part? 

The fierce competition among sports vying to get onto the Olympic program would astonish the founder of the modern Games. Yet Coubertin also would recognize that space is limited.   

Lacrosse is one of nine sports approaching the finish line for inclusion in the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics. No one knows how many will advance to the world’s biggest stage. 

And even if a sport gets into Los Angeles, there is no guarantee that it will stay on the Olympic program for Brisbane 2032 or beyond. 

The other contenders are baseball/softball, breaking, cricket, flag football, karate, kickboxing, motorsports and squash. The LA organizing committee is expected to make its recommendation to the International Olympic Committee by early August.  

The IOC – including the Olympic Program Commission, the sports department and the executive board – will also weigh in, and then its entire membership (about 100 people) votes in October at the IOC Session in Mumbai, India. 

Politics, money, television exposure, popularity and personal preferences all factor into the decision, with the current maximum of 10,500 athletes a constant reminder. 

The numbers game is even more complicated since boxing, weightlifting and modern pentathlon — all longstanding Olympic sports — are also fighting to get into the LA Games. Due to problems with governance, doping and/or relevance, they were not on the initial program for 2028. If one or more are dropped, that could open space for other sports. But not so fast — those slots could also be gobbled up by existing sports trying to add new disciplines. 

I’ve been covering the Olympics since 1984 and for every success like surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing – which were all added to the Games in Tokyo and have now become more permanent fixtures – the hopes of other sports get, well, squashed. 

The racquet sport played by more than 20 million people worldwide has been energetically trying to make its Olympic debut for two decades. I was at the IOC session in Buenos Aires in 2013 when squash was on the short list — only three sports — for 2020 and 2024. After hiring the consulting firm that helped rugby gain admittance four years earlier, the squash contingent was optimistic. 

However, wrestling, which faced the Olympic chopping block, was also on the ballot, along with baseball/softball, which fell off the program in 2012 and 2016. Wrestling got 49 votes, followed by baseball/softball with 24 and squash with 22.  

Better luck next time? Nope, there is no bonus for multiple attempts.  

Lacrosse is a newcomer to the recent bidding wars, even though it was a full-fledged Olympic sport in 1904 and 1908 and a demonstration sport in 1928, 1932 (also in Los Angeles) and 1948. 

(The Olympics has moved away from demonstration sports, but organizing committees have the option of adding sports that are particularly germane to the country or region.) 

Once World Lacrosse was fully recognized by the IOC in 2021, the sport threw its helmet in the ring.  

Lacrosse checks all of the boxes for the IOC and organizing committees, which seek sports that combine widespread appeal — particularly among young people — with reasonable cost, complexity and number of athletes. 

Lacrosse originated in North America and is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. Southern California is an emerging hotbed. The high-scoring, fast-paced sixes version keeps the numbers down, with around 160 total athletes across the men’s and women’s tournaments. Lacrosse is also sustainable and could share an existing venue with a sport such as rugby. 

However, the other team sports – baseball/softball, cricket and flag football – bring a lot of money to the table. Their bids are strongly backed by the world’s three top revenue-producing leagues (MLB, Indian Premier League and the NFL). 

In addition, team sports allow a more limited number of countries, while individual sports have the advantage of smaller numbers while including more nations. 

Ed Hula, the founder of Around the Rings who has followed the Olympic Movement since the 1980s, said baseball and softball are important to Southern California, but lacrosse could get the nod because it would bring fewer athletes and officials.   

Lacrosse also has a unique twist: the participation of the indigenous Haudenosaunee team. 

“It’s symbolic, one of those things they’ll celebrate rather than make a controversy out of,” Hula said. “It does provide a genuflection, if you will, to Native Americans that we didn’t see in LA in ’84.”  

So, what sports will we see when the Olympic Games return to Los Angeles 44 years later? Athletes know that desire and hard work is sometimes not enough to achieve a goal, and that extends to the nine sports bidding for Olympic inclusion. 

“What they’re trying to create is a dynamic system that allows more sports to participate this way on a one-off or a couple of Games basis, so everybody gets a chance to compete at the Games and prove themselves,” Hula said. “And if they’re really popular and in tune with the sports of the moment, they have that opportunity.” 

For lacrosse, only time will tell. 

Karen Rosen attended her first Olympics in Montreal in 1976 on a family vacation and was a spotter for ABC at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. As a sports writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Around the Rings, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and NBC, she has covered every Summer and Winter Olympics since 1992, including Barcelona, where her father, Mel, was the head coach of the U.S. Men’s Track and Field Team.

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