In the United States, the arrival of summer heat brings the cooling of the sports calendar. In June, playoffs in two major pro leagues ended with some familiar teams on top: The NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins wrapped up their second straight Stanley Cup championship, while the NBA's juggernaut Golden State Warriors romped to their second title in three seasons. Two very different individual sports were also in the headlines: Brooks Koepka went home with golf's U.S. Open title, while boxer Floyd Mayweather and mixed martial artist Conor McGregor announced an August date for their much hyped boxing match.
In this odd-numbered year, there's a relatively sparse slate of international sports offerings for the summer months, although we have been keeping an eye on the America's Cup sailing races and the Confederations Cup, FIFA's pre-World Cup teaser tournament. This month, we'll take a closer look at that gathering of soccer champions and examine some recent changes to the 2020 Olympic program.
The Cup Before the Cup
Casual observers of the world's game could fairly be forgiven for not keeping track of the panoply of international soccer tournaments, like the Confederations Cup, which is entering its final stages in cities across Russia. The quirky tournament, which was called the King Fahd Cup when it originated in Saudi Arabia in 1992, was taken over and rebranded by FIFA in 1997. The eight-team event amounts to a dry run for the 2018 World Cup hosts. The teams invited to play in the tourney include those from the host nation, the previous World Cup winner, and the most recent champions of the six regional confederations that constitute FIFA. This year, that means host Russia was joined by World Cup winner Germany, plus Australia, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal and Cameroon. The inclusion of neighbors Australia and New Zealand seems a bit curious, but the situation is the result of the former belonging to the Asian football confederation and the latter belonging to Oceania's.
For most observers, the tournament tends to be marginally interesting in terms of action on the field but does serve as a litmus test of the host's infrastructure, security and general preparedness for the upcoming World Cup. Toward this end, the early returns have been kind to Russia; the games of have gone off smoothly, and traveling fans have reported a generally positive experience in a country known for serious issues with hooliganism. Of course, it wouldn't be a Russian sporting event without a little bit of spin, and many in the media have noted that the "official" attendance numbers for the matches have been consistently inflated.
Beyond its function as a dress rehearsal, the relatively unimportant tournament is a barometer of FIFA's booming media presence, especially in a developing soccer market like the one in the United States. As recently as 1998, Americans wanting to watch even major events like the World Cup had to deal with tape delays, in-match commercials and an incomplete slate of games. Today, the country's soccer fans can watch every fixture of the Confederations Cup (and a slew of even smaller and more obscure tournaments) as they unfold.
As far as the soccer itself, this year's go-round has been entertaining enough, with Mexico and Portugal's 2-2 draw being the standout fixture of the early matches. As a preparatory tournament, the format is novel enough, allowing teams to test themselves against opponents outside their qualifying regions. Then again, the teams might not want to try too hard: Soccer titans Brazil won the past three iterations of the tournament, only to disappoint on the World Cup stage in each of the following years. Despite the emerging winner's curse, this week's semifinal and final rounds should provide enough action to be worth watching.
Keeping the Olympic Program Relevant
From medals made of recycled cell phones to the possibility of an artificial meteor shower during the opening ceremony, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo are emerging as a celebration of new ideas and technology. Earlier this month, the host nation's embrace of progress was mirrored by the International Olympic Committee's introduction of several new events to the 2020 competitive program. The list includes the novel 3-on-3 basketball format and edgy freestyle BMX, as well as a doubling of mixed-gender team events (from nine to 18). The mixed team events include relays in track and swimming as well as events in judo, archery and table tennis. These new events come in addition to four new sports that were approved last year: skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing and karate. Softball and baseball will return to the program for the first time since 2008, with both events expecting solid fan attendance, given high levels of local interest.
Introducing new sports is somewhat of an Olympic tradition. Over the 12 decades since the modern games were revived in Athens, Olympic events have come and gone. Early on, sports like live pigeon shooting and motorboat racing were added, then quickly abandoned. Other competitions, such as the tug of war, lasted for multiple Games after their debut, but eventually were relegated to the scrap heap. Some new events like rhythmic gymnastics and whitewater kayaking, found an enduring place on the roster. While traditionalists might chafe at the inclusion of sports like skateboarding and BMX stunt bicycle riding in the 2020 Games, the IOC is clearly trying to evolve with the times, shed its uptight image and chase new demographics, while also taking further steps toward its goal of athlete gender balance in the coming decade. IOC President Thomas Bach highlighted this attitude, noting that these Olympics will be "more youthful, more urban, and include more women."
The new competitions have been well received overall, but there have been some inevitable criticisms and complaints. The increase in mixed-gender events comes with an overall reduction in total athlete participation, including the elimination of weight classes in men's weightlifting and boxing; athletes likely to be left out as a result are fairly questioning the trade-offs in the pursuit of gender balance. The sport federations that deliver the competitions during the Games have also bristled a bit at the relatively late addition of some novel events and the new logistical challenges they present.
The addition of the youth-oriented, "extreme" sports may turn out to be wrongheaded, as high participation levels in sports like surfing doesn't necessarily translate to spectatorship of organized competition. If these sports are to have a notable impact, the IOC and its media partners will need to work hard to engage casual fans and older viewers. Or, they might possibly end up following the tug of war into the pages of Olympic history.