“That’s not exercise, it’s flagellation.” For those who have played it, Nöel Coward’s tart summary of squash requires little explanation. The sport is fast, fierce and frenetic, part balletic, part ballistic.
Squash provides a formidable duel. The four-walled court circumscribes a sphere of conflict that players and ball cannot escape. It prizes athleticism, ingenuity and sportsmanship. As with other racket sports, both players have the same ground to cover and target to hit. Unlike them, however, the walls are a leveller: the Sampsonian power-hitter is counteracted by the inevitable bounce-back, keeping the ball alive and letting the control of a rally instantly shift hands.
As an all-weather and all-age sport, squash is truly universal. Not only is it often voted the healthiest of sports but whacking a ball repeatedly at a wall is an effective — and entertaining — conduit for stress.
Like so many games squash emerged from the hothouse of 19th-century school sports: some canny Harrovians punctured a racquets ball to make it “squash(able)” and less lively. The well-heeled origins of the sport caused its rapid spread through public schools, universities and gentlemen’s clubs — even to the First Class section of the Titanic.
It travelled abroad, most quickly to Commonwealth countries like Egypt, Pakistan and Australia. Now it is a genuinely global sport, played in nearly 200 countries on some 50,000 courts by 20 million people. Current professional rankings showcase this diversity: in both the men’s and women’s game, three different continents share the top five places.
Yet since the 1980s squash has campaigned vainly for inclusion in the Olympics. Things boded well for London 2012, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected squash alongside karate as possible new inclusions. But each needed ratification from two-thirds of the IOC, which they couldn’t achieve. Despite the quiet abandonment of this two-thirds requirement for Rio 2016, squash was defeated by rugby sevens and the money-saturated sport of golf. (“Sport” is a slippery notion: if we take the old adage that a sport differs from a game in that players need to put out their cigarettes, golf, alongside shooting and archery, would fail the test.)
The prognosis for Tokyo 2020 is frustrating. Now that rules have relaxed, wrestling (ousted, then reinstated in 2013) will be joined by five new sports: karate, sport climbing, surfing, skateboarding and baseball. None of these is obviously global: baseball has seen Cuba and the USA win 21 of the last 23 world cups.
The watchword of London 2012 was “legacy”. Yet the distinguished heritage of squash is being deprived of one. There is constant pressure for many of the 8,000 courts in the UK to be knocked down or converted to more lucrative purposes. Squash’s status as an Olympic sport would usher new generations into the game and confirm its value for the 21st century. For the games of 2024, squash should at last be served its due.