Analysis  

 

Football in Olympics is a dream that could become a reality

Brian Garfinkel/Associated Press
The United States' dominance of American football is one thing blocking the sport's inclusion in the Olympics.


 

A funny thing happened as the concept of fielding a basketball "Dream Team" in the Olympic Games evolved over a decade-and-a-half.

The United States lost.

The Games of the XXX Olympiad are under way in London, and here's a look at what the Olympics would be like with America's game included.

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Though it was once unthinkable, it happened in 2004, at the hands of the Argentineans. A bronze medal and the eventual overhaul of USA Basketball resulted. But that was hardly the most significant development to come out of the whole ordeal.

The world caught up with -- and finally slayed -- a red-white-and-blue Goliath. Though a devastating blow to that particular team, it validated the notion that the game could be played internationally at the highest level.

So now, with NFL training camps opening and the world's attention turning to London and the 2012 Olympic Games, the question can be asked: Could American football enjoy the same type of evolution?

"In basketball, 50 or 60 years ago, we were killing people, and look at it today," said USA Football executive director Scott Hallenbeck. "Because everything's at hyperspeed right now, I might suggest you could cut that 50-year window in half, or to a third of what it was. With how fast things move, we could be closer than you think."

Those outside the American football community are far more skeptical. One Olympics source said that the idea of this sport being added to the games is "not even in the realm of possibility," citing the removal of baseball and softball -- games that are further along internationally than football -- due in part to American domination.

That's not stopping the International Federation of American Football from moving forward. Formed in 1998, the federation joined SportAccord, an overarching international organization designed to unite sports federations, as a provisional member in 2003, and gained full membership in 2005. Forming a federation was one of the first steps toward inclusion in the Olympics; joining SportAccord was the next.

The governing body applied for recognition by the International Olympic Committee earlier this year, taking the third step toward becoming an Olympic sport; a decision from the IOC is expected by the end of the year. Hallenbeck said that while many of the qualifications for recognition are "not clear at all," the IFAF is in compliance with two that are cut-and-dry -- a sport must have at least 50 federations, and it must have at least one federation on each continent.

There are now 64 American football federations worldwide; the incorporation of an African federation last summer, in Nigeria, filled the final continental void for the IFAF.

If recognition by the IOC comes, only one step would remain -- entrance into the Olympics. That, everyone admits, is still a long way off. But some insist that, despite the hurdles ahead, it's not a pipe dream.

"In theory, if we get recognition this year, which we could, we'd be in play for 2020," said Tommy Wiking, the Sweden-based president of the IFAF. "Our next shot after that is 2024, and the decision on (pursuing) that will be made in four or five years. If everything goes our way, 2024 is possible. Do I think we'll be in the games in 2024? No, not really. I think we'll have IOC recognition -- if not this year, then next year -- and (we'll) go from there."

Though basketball might seem a good example for American football to follow, rugby's path is more appropriate. That sport will return to the games -- after being excluded for 96 years -- for a two-pronged trial, with competitions featured in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and in the 2020 Games. Rugby's backers had to battle for that achievement, and their view of football's chances is bleak.

Joining the global scrum

The version of rugby that will be played in the Olympics will be considerably different from the game in its traditional form, thanks to changes that were made to overcome three stumbling blocks that also face American football.

The first is a numbers problem. The Olympics caps its participants at 10,500 competing athletes and coaches. Rugby in its traditional form includes 15 players per team, with seven reserves on each side. The game that will be staged in Rio, on the other hand, is "sevens," a faster, nouveau version that features just seven players on each squad. Making a similar adjustment to American football could be problematic, thanks to the structure of the game.

The second issue is gender equality. The "sevens" version of rugby is better suited for participation by both men and women. While there are women's football leagues in the U.S., the sport is predominantly played by men on an international level.

Rugby, which has taken a rocky path to Olympic inclusion, could serve as an example for American football.
Rugby, which has taken a rocky path to Olympic inclusion, could serve as an example for American football. (Lars Hagberg/Associated Press)

The third issue is related to the Olympics' relatively compressed three-week length. Traditional rugby, which is quite brutal, couldn't be played every day; American football would face the same hurdle.

And those are just the preliminary barriers, according to those who went through the process with rugby.

"The challenges that (American football) has is their lack of a global presence," said Nigel Melville, CEO of USA Rugby. "Rugby is played in over 115 countries and they're all members of the International Rugby Board. To progress to the Olympic level, the sport needs to be global. Softball, for example, came out of the games because it wasn't global. Golf, on the other hand, got in. But all the sports there are being played pretty much globally. American football is recognized globally as a sport, but it's not played globally."

Teaching, coaching and playing traditional, 11-on-11, full-contact American football is an expensive and involved process. Globalizing the game isn't as simple as, say, putting up two hoops and handing a basketball to a group of kids.

Recently, the NFL has tried to solve that challenge by exporting -- yup -- a modified version of its traditional game.

"Flag football has become the focus (of international growth)," said Chris Parsons, NFL vice president of international. "Flag is growing fast. Mexico's an example of its development -- we have over a million kids in Mexico participating. We've gotten great support, we bring in sponsors, we hold a proper tournament every year. In Japan, it's one of five sports that kids can participate in at school. It's mandatory that schools have five sports, and flag football is one of them."

The idea, for now, is that flag football can be a gateway to the traditional game in these places around the world. That kind of creative approach might be necessary -- as it was with rugby -- to meet the Olympic challenge.

Leveling the field

Earlier this month, the U.S. lost for the first time in international football competition, dropping the U-19 IFAF World Championship to Canada with a 23-17 loss.

It's true that the U.S. team might not have been the very best our country could offer. It's also possible that the other countries in the tournament took the event more seriously than the U.S. squad. But by any measure, the fact that an international team stood up to a big, bad U.S. roster dotted with current or future collegiate players is a positive development for the game.

USA Football is trying to increase the sport's global appeal. (Courtesy USA Football.)
USA Football is trying to increase the sport's global appeal. (Courtesy USA Football.)

However, there's still a sizable talent disparity. There's no doubt that if American football were played at the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. team would romp through the field like it was playing "Madden" on the rookie difficulty setting.

How does the rest of the world stack up? For now, Canada, Mexico and Japan are on the second tier internationally, according to Wiking, Parsons and Hallenbeck. The next level, from a playing standpoint, includes some combination of Germany, Austria and France, depending on who you talk to. No one's arguing that those countries are anywhere close to truly matching the U.S. But Wiking says that gap might not be quite as enormous as one might assume.

"To be honest, there are players in Austria and Germany, if given a fair chance at an NFL camp, that I think would take a roster spot," Wiking said. "I have no doubt. We have guys in Germany where, if they started playing here and went to college, they'd make it. The problem is, if they don't go to college in the U.S., there are coaches that just think that the players aren't worthy."

The problem, Wiking explains, isn't just stateside. In most other countries, athletes grow up playing sports in club systems run by national federations rather than playing at schools. The people who run the federations know that college coaches in the U.S. are unlikely to want their players working with a national team in the summer. So they aren't eager to export their players and risk losing them to a collegiate team.

Basketball, baseball and hockey don't face these issues. Teenagers from around the world are allowed to enter those drafts, and it's common for U.S. teams to cull talent from other countries' developmental programs.

Wiking optimistically projects that American football players in other countries are "six to eight years away" from competing with top college players in the U.S. and "12 to 15 years away" from competing with NFL players.

Most team sports in the Olympics are developed enough internationally that around 12 countries, on average, are able to compete in them. There's no question that far fewer than a dozen nations would be able to compete in American football. It is possible, according to Wiking, to gain acceptance with just eight countries at a competitive level, but football's far from that number, too.

"The game has to develop to the point where our world championships are flat-out competitive," Hallenbeck said. "Six of the eight teams there are competitive at the men's level, but you're still talking about college grads that aren't even making it to the Arena League. The first step, really, is (to) start seeing more international players in the NFL, like you see in basketball now, where it seems like every team has an international player or two."

But first ... the world

The NFL and various American football federations share a very real interest in international growth. The NFL has given those federations access to its resources, along with permission to distribute NFL Films footage throughout the world. It's why Parsons' team works closely with Wiking's and Hallenbeck's groups.

"To me, (Olympic inclusion would) do three things," Parsons said. "First, it'd legitimize our sport as a participation sport around the world, not just one played in the U.S. ... The second area is it really does help to create another opportunity to engage the youth, which is often a hard-to-reach group. Kids with time to play do things they watch on TV, so it'd be a good way to get youth engagement.

"And the third piece, and time will tell how impactful it is here, we had a situation with the Australian federation where we applied for government funding on the grassroots level, and we found you don't get time if the federation doesn't have an Olympic team. It really could be a nice accelerator."

Despite the NFL's strategy of staging games in London, American football does not rank among the more popular sports in the UK.
Despite the NFL's strategy of staging games in London, American football does not rank among the more popular sports in the UK. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

For now, the league is continuing forward with its initiative in London and the annual game at Wembley. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said earlier this summer he'd like to see a team based there in the next decade. Parsons, however, said American football would have to be "a top four or five sport" there from a popularity standpoint to sustain a team, and it now stands seventh or eighth. The Buffalo Bills, meanwhile, are re-upping their agreement to play games in Toronto, a city the league believes could sustain a team right now.

Inclusion in the Olympics, though, is still the big prize.

"For folks like me, in terms of our work with an international federation, it'd be like striking gold," Hallenbeck said. "It's the greatest end result; it'd mean we've achieved the ultimate goal. For the NFL, there'd be a delicate balance, in not wanting (to upstage) the grandeur of the Super Bowl. But from a USA Football standpoint, it would be the ultimate stage to promote our game. It would mean we'd been extremely successful growing our game."

Players have spoken out about the issue. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently expressed his desire to compete in the Olympics.

He will never get that shot. The odds are long for the next generation of players, as well. But the benefits of going for inclusion, and the windfall that would result, are so significant that those like Wiking and Hallenbeck don't hesitate to chase it.

"If you were to ask someone 25 years ago if there'd be as many non-Americans in the NBA as there are now, they'd have said no," Wiking said. "If you said 40 years ago that half the players in the NHL would be from outside North America, they'd think you were very wrong. And it's the same in all sports. You open that door for other countries, and they will get better."

Recognition by the IOC would jar the door loose for American football. Swinging it wide open will be much more daunting.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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