Squash and the London Olympics

The 1908 Olympic Games began on the afternoon of April 27th when Evan Noel, the eventual gold medallist, defeated Cecil Browning in the first round of the men’s singles  racquets tournament. At the time, racquets, along with the relatively recent game of squash rackets, was one of a range of racket sports played in Great Britain some of which also appeared on that year’s list of Olympic events.

Three versions of tennis were contested at the Games. Lawn tennis (nowadays abbreviated to ‘tennis’), royal tennis (played on an indoor court and now referred to as ‘real tennis’) and covered court tennis which was an indoor version of lawn tennis.

But there was no place for squash rackets at the Games and, looking back, perhaps it’s not surprising why.

Mount Vesuvius

In 1908, racquets was primarily popular in Great Britain. In fact, there were no entrants or competitors from any other nation. The Official Olympic Games Report stated, “Racquets, it may be noted, is always so expensive a game that, except at the public schools, the number of players is always so restricted and, out of the United Kingdom, India and the United States of America are the only countries where the game is played, which may be a reason for not including it in future programmes for the Olympic Games.”

1908 Olympics Opening Ceremony

1908 Olympics Opening Ceremony

At the time, it’s almost certain that squash was played even less than racquets, particularly in Great Britain. But it’s the background to the 1908 Games which offers another clue as to squash’s omission.

The Games had been scheduled to take place in Rome but, in 1906, Mount Vesuvius erupted near Naples. The Italian government felt that it needed the money to rebuild the area around the volcano and asked for the Rome Olympics to be relocated. In actual fact, it was widely believed at the time that the Italians had decided to make their request some time before the eruption, due to economic problems in Italy. Mount Vesuvius provided them with a convenient excuse.

Whatever the truth, London agreed to stage the Games. Rome would wait another 52 years for a second chance.

The British Empire

In the hands of the British, the 1908 schedule of events gave the Games the appearance of a European and British Empire championships. No Americans or Australian tennis players competed in London. Outside of Europe, the only other players were from Canada and South Africa. In the covered court tennis events, the representation was even more limited, with only players from Great Britain and Sweden taking part.

Vane Pennell

Vane Pennell

The racquets event drew its competitors from an even more limited gene pool, all seven  (and, unsurprisingly, all men) representing Great Britain which made a clean sweep of the (men’s) singles and doubles. The youngest competitor was Henry Brougham, aged 19, and the oldest Henry Leaf, aged 45. Leaf finished as the silver medalist in the men’s singles despite having to withdraw from the final due to an injury to his hand sustained during the men’s doubles.

Despite the British monopoly, the United States could claim some success in that John Jacob Astor, gold medalist in the men’s doubles together with Vane Pennell, had been born in New York. He was a boy of five when his family sailed for England in 1891, eventually becoming Lieutenant-Colonel John Jacob Astor V, 1st Baron Astor of Hever.

Astor also won bronze in the men’s singles.

Rules and Regulations

The non-appearance of squash in the London Olympics can also be linked to the circumstances at the time surrounding the sport’s regulation.  

It was only in April 1907, one year before the London Olympics, that Great Britain’s splendidly-named Tennis, Rackets & Fives Association had set up a sub-committee to set standards for squash. In the early years of the century, the game had increased in popularity with various schools, clubs and even private citizens building squash courts, but with no set dimensions.

Although the sub-committee managed to codify the rules of squash, it was not until 1923, five years after the end of the First World War, that the Royal Automobile Club was to host a meeting to ‘further discuss’ them. A further five years elapsed before the Squash Rackets Association was formed to set standards for squash throughout Great Britain

In direct contrast, the earliest national association of squash in the world was formed in 1904 as the United States Squash Racquets Association, (USSRA), now known as US Squash.

The 2020 Olympics

Today, squash again finds itself seeking entry to the Olympic family of sports in 2020 having undergone a series of reforms and re-organisations at the behest of the International Olympics Committee. In some ways, its circumstances appear to have changed, as have those of racquets, played in Britain by an even smaller number of people than that from which the competitors for the 1908 London Olympics were drawn.

And what about the circumstances of the IOC? Less than one year after the 2012 London Olympics, the organisation itself is seeking to add a new sport which will attract a younger audience.

Squash may well be it.

But, as in the case of racquets in 1908, it may take a natural disaster to make it happen.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Sports Reference website and Top End Sports for details of the 1908 London Olympics. Also thanks to Wikipedia for the biography of John Jacob Astor.

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