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U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL : LOS ANGELES--1991 : An Official Dilemma: How Much Is Too Much? : Growth: The Olympics have gotten progressively bigger and sports still seek their places in the lineup.

July 10, 1991|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A glance down the long roster of sports in this week's U.S. Olympic Festival raises a question amateur sports officials are beginning to ask:

At what point does the International Olympic Committee decide it is sanctioning too many sports?

The answer: Now.

The U.S. Olympic Committee recently calculated that if every IOC nation took every athlete allowed to the Barcelona Olympics, the total would be 70,000, instead of the expected 10,000. At Rome, in 1960, there were 7,700.

At Barcelona, there will be 28 sports, seven more than at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

The Olympic Festival, too, has grown markedly since 1978 at Colorado Springs. That year, 1,900 athletes competed. This week, it's about 3,000, in 36 sports.

It isn't simply the addition of sports that has made the Olympics and Olympic-like competitions such as the Pan American Games and U.S. Olympic Festival difficult to manage.

The steady addition of women's competition (in basketball, cycling, rowing, etc.) and the addition of more events to existing sports has swelled the number of athletes.

The IOC has showed signs of wanting to reduce the numbers before the Games become unmanageable. Not long ago, the IOC announced new criteria for the addition of sports to the Olympic program. Among them, proposed sports must be "widely practiced by men in at least 75 countries and on four continents, and by women in at least 40 countries and on three continents."

Who decides what "widely practiced" means? And who decides what will be trimmed to accommodate a new sport?

Says IOC member Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles: "Everyone agrees some sports must be cut, but the sports most often cited are suggested by people who know the least about those sports and care the least about them.

"Lodging alone has become a major problem. Barcelona said from the beginning its Olympic village will house 15,000, and it looks as if they will have 10,000 athletes and 5,000 coaches and administrators.

"Logically, just from the lodging standpoint, it looks as if changes must be made if one city will be able to host Olympic Games in the future."

Along with traditional Olympic sports such as track and field, swimming and diving, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, basketball and shooting, this week's Olympic Festival also offers non-traditional Olympic sports, such as badminton, bowling, racquetball, rhythmic gymnastics, roller skating, softball, synchronized swimming and Taekwondo.

Bowling? Racquetball? Roller skating? How did Saturday night fun or twice-weekly fitness activities reach USOC status?

This way:

Let's say you invent a game called smashball. Before you know it, several thousand people are playing in franchised smashball clubs around the country. Next comes youth and masters smashball. ESPN covers the U.S. Smashball Championships.

Smashball administrators pass out business cards at IOC meetings. Eventually, smashball becomes a Pan American Games sport. A few more years go by and smashball is in the big show, the Olympics.

The formula for bringing your sport to the U.S. Olympic Festival involves a hard-core group of devotees who are willing to put up with years of lobbying, big phone and travel bills, hard work and disappointment.

A look at how racquetball reached USOC status shows how you can get your favorite game a heartbeat away from the Olympics.

Racquetball was invented by a New Britain, Conn., man, Joe Sobek, in the late 1950s. He took a long look at the 1920s game of paddleball, saw it going nowhere and designed a new racquet; a faster, livelier ball and combined the rules of squash and handball.

At first, the only players were aging handball players, who found racquetball similar but a slightly less stressful game. Then players began coming from all directions.

The country's first governing body called itself the International Racquetball Assn. and held its first national championships in 1968 at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee. A new leader emerged, Robert Kendler of Chicago.

Kendler, a friend of former IOC president Avery Brundage, gained control of the sport but didn't appear to be moving the game toward IOC level.

Political infighting temporarily impeded racquetball's growth at the administrative level. Factions broke off into splinter groups.

In the U.S., a former rugby player from York, Pa., took charge of the drive to make racquetball a USOC sport.

Luke St. Onge, 49, ran the U.S. Racquetball Federation, a forerunner of the AARA, on borrowed funds out of offices in Chicago, Stillwater, Okla., Memphis, Dallas and, now, Colorado Springs, at the USOC training center.

Eventually, the U.S. governing body for racquetball became the American Amateur Racquetball Assn.

By 1979, the sport had a world governing body, the International Amateur Racquetball Federation, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., and one of only three Olympic world governing bodies based in the United States.

Today, the AARA has 35,000 registered players who pay $15 per year and 11 full-time employees in Colorado Springs.

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