The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) decision to add five sports to the Tokyo 2020 program has put sport’s most coveted prize, Olympic gold, on the radar of some of Australia’s top young athletes.
Karate, skateboarding, softball/baseball (women/men), sport climbing and surfing have been included in the 2020 Games, creating 18 new events and opening the Olympic door to 474 more athletes.
An equal number of women and men will compete in all new sports with the exception of the ‘diamond duo’. Each softball team will comprise 15 players while baseball teams will have 24.
The change is 2020-specific with host cities now invited to propose additional sports for their edition of the Games. As expected, the IOC voted unanimously in favour of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee’s bid last week.
Team Zela was pretty excited to hear the news. We spoke to a few athletes who, quite rightly, had even more to be excited about.
The IOC decision was welcome news for former world karate champion Kristina Mah, but it also conjured a sense of relief.
“It’s been coming for so long,” she said.
“This is a dream come true for a lot of people who have practiced karate for a very long time.”
As well as a chance for athletes perform on the world’s most prestigious sporting stage, karate’s Olympic admittance is an opportunity to share the sport with a new audience.
Sydney-based Mah, who has 20 national titles to her name, said the karate community would take great pride in their display.
“People who practice karate know it’s so wonderful to watch and such a beautiful martial art to share,” she said.
“It teaches…the usual qualities a sport will bring out in an athlete but also there’s the whole philosophy that lasts long after the competition years end for a competitor.”
The two disciplines of kumite (freestyle fighting) and kata (showcasing techniques through choreography) will feature in Tokyo.
At 33, Mah isn’t convinced she’ll be in contention once qualifiers roll around, but she is excited about the prospect for the next crop.
“I know that young girls at the moment, all they want is to be world champions. Now that karate is in the Olympics, it provides a focal point for them that is really clear.
“They’ll have support in terms of managing their careers…they will have more recognition.”
Host cities have been encouraged to favour youth appeal when finalising their additional sport proposals and Tokyo certainly nailed the brief with skateboarding.
The sport will make its Olympic debut in the form of ‘park’ skateboarding, a discipline performed on a purpose-built course comprising rails, stairs, pipes, ramps and transfers.
Australia’s Poppy Starr Olsen, a current junior world champion, woke up to read the news “all over the media” on Thursday morning. She said she had a tough job containing her excitement while her family slept.
The 16-year-old Novocastrian was swept up in the magic of the Games when she first tuned in to the spectacle eight years ago. She said to compete on such a grand occasion would be “amazing”.
“I remember the first time I watched the Olympics…and I just wanted to be there,” Olsen said.
“Even though skateboarding wasn’t there, it looked so amazing.
“It’s going to be hard (to qualify) but it’s just going to be so fun trying to get to Olympic level.”
Softball (and baseball)
For the diamond sports, the IOC’s decision marks a return to the Games rather than an introduction. Baseball became an official Olympic sport at the 1992 Games, softball followed in ‘96, and both were booted following the 2008 Beijing Games.
Nothing against overarm pitching, but we’re going to focus on the softball portion of Tokyo’s two-for-one reinstatement deal because…women.
Australia medalled at all four of softball’s Games with their best effort a silver medal in Athens 2004. Current Australian outfielder Janice Blackman said the Aussie Spirit would be eyeing the podium once again in 2020 despite the team’s poor showing at last month’s World Championships.
“There’s no doubt we will go for gold,” she said.
“We will always go for gold…always.”
At 20, Blackman was the baby of the recent World Championship campaign. She was also one of the team’s best, helping make a solid case for Olympic selection.
Still, plenty can happen in four years, a fact Blackman had to remind herself of while celebrating softball’s big news.
“We were so excited,” Blackman said of her celebrations with housemate and fellow Australian squad member, Tara Speakman.
“We couldn’t shut up about it but then we realised we needed to calm down. It’s only just been announced. We can get more excited along the way for the next four years.”
Three-time national champion Oceana Mackenzie heard the good news via text from a competitor; such is the camaraderie within sport climbing.
It’s one of many things the 14-year-old loves about her pursuit. Here’s another one.
“Climbing really encourages girls to compete, which is really good because a lot of sports don’t tend to do that,” she said.
“It’s a really equal sport.”
In Tokyo, sport climbing is expected to feature three disciplines – speed climbing (a race to the top), lead climbing (increasing difficulty for increased points) and bouldering (a series of routes requiring analytical thinking as well as athleticism).
A member of the Australian Youth Team, Mackenzie has been hooked on sport climbing since she was eight.
“I pretty much got on the wall and loved it from the start,” she said.
The Melbourne teen plans to work towards qualifying in all three disciplines, but said it is likely many climbers will specialise. Olympic inclusion will surely raise the profile of sport climbing. In fact, it probably already has. Mackenzie said she hoped to see the exposure translate to increased participation.
“I think it’ll motivate a lot of people to get involved and it will get people excited about training even more,” she said.
“It’s so exciting.”
Most Australian sports fans could rattle off a pretty decent list of local surfing champions and the good news is, the talent pool is just as rich in the younger ranks.
Wading in that talent pool is Junior Women’s Champion Isabella Nichols, who shared her delight with Zela.
“It’s so sick, it’s going to be awesome for the sport,” the 18-year-old said of surfing’s Olympic inclusion.
To be held on natural waves on Tokyo’s east coast, the surfing competition will comprise a men’s and a women’s shortboard event, each with 20 athletes.
Nichols, who hails from Coolum Beach on the Sunshine Coast, said Australia’s medal chances would be healthy.
“We’ve got so many programs in place, so many great coaches, so many great trainers and so many ‘groms’ coming up,” she said.
“There are so many great surfers in Oz and for sure, Australia will definitely be in contention for medals in four years’ time.”
And if she made the cut?
“Honestly it would be the biggest privilege,” Nichols said.
“At the time I will be 22 and hopefully peaking, but it would be such a good experience whether I am picked or whether I am watching someone else competing for Australia.
“It’s going to be amazing.”