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Squash and the Olympic Games

Volume 613: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2016

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered squash and the Olympic games.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and it is great to see the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), in her place. I know how passionate she is about sport and I promise not to mention how well Wales did in the football.

So there I was in the newly built Bridgend recreation centre in the summer of 1975, working as a part-time sports assistant in the summer holidays, earning money to get me through university. Sport has always meant so much to me. I was very shy when I was a child and was bullied, so my mother sent me to judo classes to strengthen me up. I got a black belt first dan when I was 13 and a fourth dan in 1974. I may come across as being rather feeble but I do have a dark side, so be very scared.

I went on to represent Wales schools in hockey, tennis and athletics. Sport gave me a focus and confidence, and it made me a team player, so working in sport is an absolute pleasure. And now it is difficult to stop me talking.

Anyway, I was teaching in the main hall of Bridgend recreation centre when I heard this “thud, thud” noise, so I went to investigate. I climbed some stairs to a balcony and saw two men in a room using strangely shaped tennis rackets to belt a little rubber ball into submission. It was love at first sight—with the game, not the men. I hired a racket, scrounged a ball and spent every spare minute between shifts on court, teaching myself to play squash.

The players at Bridgend recreation centre adopted me and I joined the squash club. I made the men’s team and was spotted by Squash Wales, which invited me to the trials for Wales ladies. That was in early December and I did not hear anything afterwards, so I assumed that I had not made the grade. Then, just before Christmas I was reading the sport section of the national newspaper, as you do, when I saw, “Chris Rees makes home international team after playing squash for only six months”, so I thought, “Ah, that’s a really nice story,” before realising that it was referring to me. The selectors had forgotten to tell me that I had been picked.

There began a long career. I represented Wales more than a hundred times, playing at No. 1 for the team in some matches, and I won some titles, including the Dutch Open. However, I lost the Welsh Closed Final eight years in a row, which takes a bit of doing. I seem to remember that one year I was two games up and 8-0 up with match ball, and I managed to lose 10-8 in the fifth game. That was a classic Rees performance.

Squash has given me so much: fun; fitness; friends; and a job. I retired as a player in the 1990s and in 2004 I called Squash Wales as I was looking for an old friend. The director of coaching and development, Mike Workman, said, “Chris Rees! Haven’t heard from you for over 10 years. Thought you were dead! We need more women coaches. There’s a course tomorrow—I’ll put your name down.” So I said, “No, I’m a player. I can’t coach. I haven’t picked up a racket for 10 years.” Somehow I lost that argument with Mike and I lost many more when he subsequently became my boss.

I ended up on that course and many other coaching courses. I became a level 3 coach, a tutor, an assessor and a Welsh national coach. I also had the honour of being awarded Sport Wales Female Coach of the Year in 2008. I am the only racket sport coach to have received that award—so far. Playing for Wales, representing my country and pulling on that red shirt was one of the best experiences of my life, but finding a youngster and coaching them through from being a beginner to playing for Wales, and watching them develop skills and tactical maturity, is much better.

It is difficult to choose just one player to speak about today, but Josh Lee was only nine when I started coaching him. He was so small that he used two hands to hold the racket, on both the forehand and backhand sides, but he was so talented that he was beating children much bigger than himself by being clever. Nevertheless, being two-handed restricts a player’s range of shot and their ability to reach for the ball, and it is very wearing on the hips. I knew that if Josh wanted to make the Welsh squad, I had to turn him into a one-handed player, but that meant he would have to go back to square one and lose to players he had never lost to before. I explained to him what I was doing and he understood. So we used a cut-down racket. He felt stronger with his left hand, so we tied his right hand behind his back. Then we spent many hours recreating his swing and grooving his shots. He went on to become a fine player and represented Wales. I am so proud to have helped Josh and all the other children I have coached.

Many people are surprised to learn that squash is not an Olympic sport; they assume that it has been in the Olympics for many years. Sadly, that is not the case. Squash is gladiatorial, dynamic, physically demanding and mentally challenging; it is like chess on legs. It teaches players strategy, tactics and how to outmanoeuvre an opponent, so it is an ideal grounding for a political career.

Squash is the only racket sport where players share the same space and it is a sport for life. Children as young as four are taking up squash and there is a masters circuit for everyone from the over-35s to the over-75s, with competitions in many countries, as well as the world and European championships. Welsh men became the over-70 world champions; they were all skill, trickery and bandages, but there was not much movement.

Over the years, the rules of squash and the dimensions of courts have become standardised, although some would argue that the rules are open to interpretation and manipulation, which sounds a bit familiar. Just ask our Squash Wales world referee, Roy Gingell, who has refereed some of the toughest and most competitive matches on the world circuit. He used to have hair like mine when he started refereeing; now he has a “Wayne David haircut”.

Why is squash not in the Olympics? It is a complete mystery to me. The International Squash Rackets Federation was formed in 1967; it is now called the World Squash Federation and is recognised as the international federation for squash by the International Olympic Committee. We now have over 50,000 courts in more than 185 nations, from the Arctic circle to the bottom tips of South America and Australia. Squash is a genuinely global sport that is played by millions of people all over the world. There have been male and female world champions from every continent. Last year, 47 countries hosted professional senior tour events, featuring players from 74 nations.

Being another retired squash player myself, I have listened to my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest. Does she agree that squash is more in keeping with the Olympic spirit than synchronised swimming, and that when squash was introduced to the Commonwealth games in 2002, both singles and doubles matches were hugely successful and enjoyed by both the public and the participants?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I completely agree with him. I have yet to see the advantages of synchronised swimming, however hard I have tried.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate. We are really dragging out the old squash players today; I, too, have loved the game for many years. We have watched golfers pulling out of the Olympic games; I understand why they are doing so, but not their comments about the Olympics not being the pinnacle of their sport and in a sense not being valuable. If squash was in the Olympic games, the Olympics would be the main tournament in the squash calendar. Squash would take its place as an Olympic sport more readily than golf and many other sports have done.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It would have been the pinnacle of my career to win a medal at the Olympic games. I do not understand golf. It involves spending five hours on a golf course, hitting perhaps 100 balls, while on a squash court it is 100 balls in five minutes. I am sorry, but I do not get it. That is my personal opinion.

There are more than 750 players from 69 countries competing on the men’s and women’s professional squash tours. The World Squash Federation—WSF—world junior circuit for boys and girls embraces world, regional and national junior open events. We have WSF world and European rankings for seniors, juniors and masters. Squash has full gender parity and has begun to offer equal prize money for major competitions. The sport is fully World Anti-Doping Agency—WADA—compliant.

SQUASHTV is a WSF bespoke production, with staff who travel to all major events, providing quality and consistency. We have super-slow-mo replays, multiple camera angles, in-play stats, live web transmission and full-match video-on-demand uploads. Super HD was introduced in 2015, and Sky, Fox, Al-Jazeera and others have broadcast agreements. The world series finals were shown live in 47 countries in Europe by Eurosport.

State-of-the-art all-glass show courts have been introduced, with glass floors and side door options. Squash is very cool now; it is presented very differently on the professional tour from how it was when I used to play. There is music, lighting and MCs. An old friend of mine, Robert Edwards, started the cool commentaries, and became known as “the voice of squash”. There is a great connection between players and spectators. Para-squash is well established; for example, deaf squash has its own world championships, and the German squash federation is making excellent progress with wheelchair squash in an effort to meet the requirements of the International Paralympic Committee.

Squash has been a Commonwealth games sport, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) mentioned, since 1998, a Pan American games sport since 1995 and an Asian games sport also since 1998. The WSF has been working with the International Olympic Committee—the IOC—since 1986 to get squash included in the Olympic games, but at that time the sports included were set in stone, so it has been an uphill task to get squash in.

How does it work? The decision on which sports are included in the games is made at the same time as the successful bidding city is announced. In 2005, London won the bid to host the 2012 games, and the sports for 2012 were announced, with squash coming top of the shortlisted sports to be included. To be included would have been amazing, because at that time James Willstrop of England was ranked No. 1 in the world and Nick Matthew of England was ranked No. 2—gold and silver Olympic medals. Jenny Duncalf of England was ranked No. 2 in the world and Laura Massaro of England was ranked No. 3—silver and bronze medals. I must admit that our Welsh players were not quite as highly ranked.

It was not expected that any places would be available among the then 28-maximum sports to be included in the London Olympics but baseball and softball were taken out, so we thought that squash would be in. However, we then fell foul of a rule that new-entry sports should have a voting threshold of 75%, which none of the shortlisted sports had, so London ran with only 26 sports.

Then, in 2009, the two vacant spots for the 2016 games were filled by rugby sevens and golf. Some may say that that was commercially attractive after the 2008 crash. It was then decided that a sport would be removed from the 28 sports in the 2016 games to make room for a new sport in the 2020 games. Wrestling was removed, but then added back in to a shortlist of eight. The list was then reduced to three sports: wrestling, baseball and softball—now combined—and squash. But in 2013, wrestling—not a new sport—was voted back in, when squash was, in fact, the only new sport on the shortlist.

Baseball is a major sport in Japan, so Tokyo was very keen on baseball. The IOC gave the host country the right to nominate new sports. Originally these were squash and baseball because they were the two on the shortlist, but Tokyo was encouraged to open it up to any sport. The city selected a shortlist of eight from the 25 sports that had applied. In August 2015, each sport gave a presentation to the IOC, and in the September Tokyo selected five sports, not including squash. They were baseball and softball combined, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing. Surfing does not even have an international federation that is recognised by the IOC and, because of concerns over the level of waves in the Japanese ocean, a wave-making machine like the Snowdonia model might have to be installed. We cannot get away from Wales, no matter how hard we try.

The host for 2024 will be decided in 2017. The front-runner appears to be Los Angeles, but we have no idea whether there will be any space for new sports. Squash would be inexpensive to introduce, with men’s and women’s singles draws of 32 each. The competitions would take place on two courts over six days with two spectator sessions each day, and only 20 refereeing officials would be needed. Existing squash court venues could be used or glass show courts could be set up. Each show court could accommodate 4,000 spectators, using steep seating to create a fantastic atmospheric arena. There is no need for a warm-up venue because players train on the courts on which they compete. Imagine what two show courts in Horse Guards Parade would have added to the London games.

I understand that the co-vice-chair of our new all-party parliamentary group on squash and racketball, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), had some discussions with Mr Speaker to see whether a show court could be set up in Speakers Court, so that MPs, peers and staff could have the squash experience. But that might have caused a few by-elections. Will the Minister pledge her Department’s support to squash at both grassroots and elite level? Will she shed some light on what has gone wrong with the bids to include squash in the Olympics, and will she help us to campaign for squash to become an Olympic sport?

We had a World Squash Day in 2015, on Saturday 10 October. This year’s day has not been announced yet, but perhaps the Minister would be able to join us. We would be honoured if she would join our APPG on squash and racketball.

Yet again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on securing the debate. I am slightly concerned that two of the three parliamentary squash players who contributed to the debate are Welsh. When the hon. Lady invites me to play squash in the future, we ought to have regional competitions to see what happens. To be perfectly honest, I do not fancy my chances against the three of them, and I used to play squash.

The hon. Lady need not apologise for Wales’s performance in the Euros. I think that for a while we were all Welsh, somehow or another, and we should take this opportunity to congratulate the Wales team on their performance. They did the whole country extremely proud.

There is no doubt that the case to include squash as a future Olympic sport has been made with great passion and conviction today. I am aware of the hon. Lady’s great interest in squash and recognise the valuable contribution she has made to the sport as a top-class player and as a coach—I am now slightly in awe of her sporting CV. It is a tribute to her commitment that she is the only squash coach to receive the Sport Wales female coach of the year award to date, although I hope that the accolade will be awarded to her successors, building on her great work in the sport.

Squash is indeed an exciting, dynamic sport and it has a rich heritage in this country. The national performance centre in Manchester is helping to build world-class strength in depth, and three men and six women are currently in the top 20 rankings. Recent British world champions, including Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro, are great exponents and role models, and inclusion in the Olympics would be an excellent showcase to help grow the sport further. However, it is right that the decision to add any new sport to the Olympic programme is a matter for the International Olympic Committee—the IOC. It would not be appropriate for the British Government, or any national Government, to become involved in that process, or to lobby for any particular sport’s inclusion, especially given the varied sporting landscape that we enjoy in this country.

I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that lots of different sports lobby me to lobby other organisations. It is difficult to go along having a preference for one or another. It is right that we do not get involved and that it is an independent process, but that said, it is open to the relevant national governing body, along with the appropriate world governing body, to make a case for the inclusion of its sport. I understand that that may be under consideration for the 2024 Olympic games.

Nothing is guaranteed, and the incentive to be included on the Olympic programme is one that many sports may wish to aspire to. We are now just over two weeks away from the Rio games, which I am sure will be a wonderful spectacle for athletes and fans alike. In the debate last week, I said that the whole country would be right behind Team GB and indeed ParalympicsGB in Rio. Preparations over the past four years have gone well, with UK Sport working hard, alongside the British Olympic Association and the British Paralympic Association, to confirm Britain’s position as one of the leading Olympic and Paralympic nations in the world. While competition in Rio will be strong, I know that our athletes are ready to give their all and make the country proud.

I can well understand why an exciting global sport like squash would wish to be included in this wonderful sporting panorama, reaching a global audience of billions and inspiring audiences at home. Squash has embraced innovation in recent years to make it a more televisual sport, and it is also in the lead on gender parity, along with other racket sports such as tennis. Indeed the success of the UK Sport-funded men’s world championship held in Manchester in 2013 has resulted in the event again being awarded to the city. It will host the men’s and women’s world championships next year, which will further boost interest in the sport in this country.

The success of the 2014 Commonwealth games in Glasgow further demonstrated the strength of the sport in the home nations and its enduring popularity across the Commonwealth. There is a possibility that the Commonwealth Games will be held again in the UK in 2026. That would be another chance to promote the sport domestically while showcasing the UK’s ability to host major events to a large international audience. It would also offer economic benefits to the nations.

Increased participation is vital to the lifeblood of any sport and helps to feed the élite level from a healthy grassroots base. That is why in December 2015 I published our new sport strategy, which puts increased participation at the heart of the long-term direction of sport. The cross-departmental strategy will use sport to improve and measure the physical and mental wellbeing of people, as well as offering individual, social and community benefits and economic development. Although UK Sport does not fund squash currently, it supports the sport domestically in bidding for major events such as the world championships and in the field of international relations.

Home nations sports councils such as Sport England and Sport Wales also invest money in the sport at the grassroots level, encouraging participation and fostering talent. England Squash was awarded £13.5 million by Sport England for the four-year period of 2013 to 2017—£8.5 million for participation and £5 million for talent. Sport England’s £5 million funds the talent pathway, supporting 4,000 young players aged 11 to 18, and the élite programme.

Great work is being done to encourage new players into the game and to address the recent decline in participation numbers. Squash 101 is a new programme to get more people playing—developed by England Squash and funded by Sport England—through group sessions. It delivers a fast-paced, intense workout without the need to play with a specific partner or within leagues. It includes formal and team challenges. Sessions are fun, informal and different every week. I suggest that that is how we do it in the all-party group to encourage more MPs to be active. They can come along and play a fun and innovative game of squash.

England Squash has also engaged with Sport England’s successful “This Girl Can” campaign to deliver “Squash Girls Can”. It is a fun beginners’ session for women and girls. The sessions run for six to eight weeks, regardless of age or experience, and are a great introduction to squash. Sport England continues to discuss potential ways to develop facilities with local providers, such as those in my constituency, where they are exploring ways to develop facilities, including a temporary show court, which is extremely exciting. From the perspective of the hon. Member for Neath, I know that Sport Wales has also done its bit to encourage participation, coaching and elite performance in the Principality. It has two top 100 players in the men’s and women’s game.

There is certainly a case to be made that such an innovative and exciting sport should be able to grace the world’s biggest stage, and the chance to win medals for Britain would of course be a popular outcome from the Sports Minister’s perspective. However, the right and proper procedures must be followed to secure that global stage for squash, as with any other non-Olympic sport. Squash certainly has a strong case to make to the IOC, should it so choose. More widely, I assure the hon. Lady that the sport is healthy in this country. With the new sport strategy now in place, I expect that health to continue to improve and to deliver not only world-class performance internationally, but more opportunities across the country to enjoy playing this wonderful game.

Question put and agreed to.