by Ian Rogers
Since chess was accepted as a sport by the International Olympic Committee in 1999, the world chess body FIDE has dreamed of having chess included at the Olympic Games and FIDE’s controversial President Kirsan Iljumzhinov has refused to accept every hint by the IOC that his dream of Olympic inclusion may be futile.
When told that the Summer Olympic programme was full, he proposed including chess in the Winter Olympics.
When it was specified that sports in the Winter Olympics must be played on snow or ice, Iljumzhinov suggested last week, in all seriousness, that an Olympic chess competition could be played with pieces made of ice.
Before the laughing had died down, Iljumzhinov declared that “We are on the verge of getting rapid [25 minutes] chess into the Winter Olympic programme.”
Iljumzhinov explained that at next month’s meeting between the IOC and FIDE he would present letters from 100 countries in support of chess’ inclusion in the Winter Olympics. He added, not entirely diplomatically, “The ancient Greeks said that sport was the combination of strength and intelligence. The Olympics has strength and FIDE will bring the intelligence.”
Notably, the President of the Russian Chess Federation Andrey Filatov has broken with Iljumzhinov and is pushing for the more limited ambition of seeing chess in the Winter Paralympics.
“Currently we have continents that are not included in the Paralympic movement, while chess shall give them this chance,” said Filatov unconvincingly. “Just imagine a handicapped person living in Africa. Where is he supposed to find snow? He can become a part of such Games through chess.”
FIDE’s Olympic hopes stayed alive despite a 2002 recommendation by the IOC’s Programme Commission that mind sports never be added to the Olympics. However the PC’s advice that the Olympic Charter be changed to reflect their recommendation was never implemented and so, last week, chess was one of 33 sports invited to apply for inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games.
The invitation may have been a formality – sports such as baseball and karate are far ahead in the queue – but with bridge also invited it is clear that mind sports are still, theoretically, eligible.
The key barrier to chess’ Olympic hopes were identified last year by FIDE in a rare moment of realism; “The main problem [is] that chess is still not recognised as a sport in the US, the UK and some other European countries which hold significant clout in the contemporary Olympic movement.”
FIDE could also have added that the Olympic television networks and sponsors, who exert influence on many of the IOC’s decisions, would prefer telegenic sports (and competitors). Chess can be made attractive viewing for people who can play chess, but that remains a small proportion of the worldwide Olympic viewing audience.
Iljumzhinov’s solution has been to travel the world asking Olympic Committees from less influential countries to sign a letter of support for chess’ inclusion, and Iljumzhinov currently claims 100 signatures.
Whether that we be enough will be discovered after FIDE’s June meeting with the IOC hierarchy.
Despite all Iljumzhinov’s efforts and statements, chess has never been remotely close to being added to the Olympic programme. The odds are heavily that in June Iljumzhinov will be refused again but – with the encouragement of the IOC, which has an interest in giving every sport a glimmer of hope – Iljumzhinov will continue his quixotic quest for many years to come.
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