Forget about ego if squash is to achieve ambition of Olympic place, says new WSF president
By Callum Murray
Any new bid for squash to join the Olympic programme at a future edition of the games will be a team effort and will not rely on the “ego” of a bid leader, according to Jacques Fontaine, the recently-elected president of the World Squash Federation.
India’s N Ramachandran, Fontaine’s predecessor as WSF president, was held responsible by some for the sport’s failure to be chosen to join the programme for the 2020 games in Tokyo after he was criticised for trying to run a ‘one-man’ campaign.
Speaking exclusively to Sportcal in London on Friday, on the eve of a WSF executive board meeting, Fontaine was reluctant to criticise Ramachandran directly, but said: “I am an ‘active pessimist’. I try to see reasonably the situation and, after looking at the facts, to be active to modify the situation or to progress.
“I think that, including in my career [the 69-year-old Fontaine, who is now retired, worked in the watch industry] we were always working on the basis of a team. I won’t do anything without a team. Maybe we will be successful, maybe not, but in any case squash deserves to be an Olympic sport. It’s up to all stakeholders to make their best efforts to reach the target. It’s not up to me or Alex [Gough, chief executive of the Professional Squash Association]. Forget about ego.”
In November, France’s Fontaine was elected as the new president of the WSF ahead of USA’s Natalie Grainger, a former world number-one squash player, Egypt's Mohamed El Menshawy, a former WSF vice-president, and England’s Zena Wooldridge, president of the European Squash Federation.
Upon election, Fontaine, who was president of the French Squash Federation and remains a board member of the CNOSF, the French national Olympic committee, said: “My intention will be to work with a new governance model based on integrity, transparency and team spirit. The WSF needs to establish a defined agreement with the professional section of our discipline, the PSA.”
He added: “The Olympic agenda remains a priority, along with increasing the profile of our sport worldwide and supporting grassroots development. Collaboration of all Member Nations is a must.”
Fontaine has lost no time in implementing the first of those election pledges, after the WSF and PSA last month announced a joint vision for squash “at all levels that will enable the sport to create a more stable and successful platform from which to market itself around the world.”
One squash publication had gone as far as to talk of a “civil war” having been averted with Fontaine’s election, after the PSA in 2015 openly discussed breaking away from the WSF to create an independent ‘task force’ of nations, in protest at what it saw as flaws in the management of the Olympic bid.
Asked by Sportcal how the federation will change under his leadership, Fontaine told Sportcal: “First, in terms of management, team spirit is one of the key issues, along with transparency. We have to work collaboratively with all nations, regions and organisations. This is a change in mentality. My predecessor was not seeing things like me. I would say that it’s a personal approach. I have no personal ambition, but ambitions for my sport.”
Many observers had expected that squash would join the 2020 Olympic programme after failing with two earlier attempts, in the wake of a decision by the International Olympic Committee to allow, for the first time, the organising committee to have a say in which sports will feature on the programme. In the event, five sports were invited to join – baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing – but not squash.
Asked if he was surprised by the organisers’ decision, Fontaine said: “I was not that surprised, unfortunately, by the result because the campaign was difficult to follow. Information on the campaign was limited and very concentrated in the hands of one man. I don’t believe in a one-man show campaign. I believe in a campaign where athletes are the centre of the proposal.”
Fontaine stressed that no decision has yet been taken to mount a new Olympic campaign, pointing out that that decision will be taken by the board and not by him alone. However, he is in no doubt of the benefits of Olympic status for squash, summarising them as: “I think that the first benefit is recognition. The second one is for athletes: it’s the pinnacle of their career to take part in the games and, if possible, to win a medal. There are also financial consequences, not only for local federations but for international federations.”
All Olympic international federations receive a proportion of the commercial revenues of the Olympic Games from the International Olympic Committee, a payment which could transform the WSF’s budget, which at present is only about £400,000 ($499,738) a year. Conversely, the cost of mounting another expensive campaign to join the Olympics is one of the factors that will have to be taken into consideration by the WSF’s board, before any new bid is launched.
Fontaine continued: “I was sometimes surprised that this Olympic dream was not shared by everybody. I was speaking to some friends in climbing and surfing and you feel this [inclusion in the 2020 Olympic programme] has changed their life. This reinforces me in the idea we have to join forces and include the professional sector in the bid, if any bid is decided by the WSF board.”
One drawback of the new opportunity offered by host cities being enabled to choose extra sports beyond the 28 ‘core’ ones that make up the Olympic programme is that the new sports are not guaranteed a continuing place in the games after the edition for which they have been chosen. Fontaine acknowledged this, saying: “Today those sports come in in a provisional position. But for the five new ones, they’re in the same position as golf and rugby [which were chosen by the IOC to join the programme for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, but whose position will be reviewed after the Tokyo 2020 edition].
“We have to go by all opportunities. Being registered as an event, it’s probably a foot in the door. I know being ‘core’ could be complicated. I know that all sports that came in expect to stay. But finally, even baseball was kicked out and came back in [baseball-softball lost its place for the 2012 and 2016 games, before being readmitted for 2020]. We cannot forget the opportunity we have to profit.”
Fontaine sees the 2024 Olympic bid race as providing a golden opportunity for squash, given that the sport is popular in the two countries represented by the bid cities that are favourites to win the race, USA (Los Angeles) and France (Paris). He said: “The greatest opportunity is 2024, no doubt about that. We will have to adapt our strategies after Lima [the IOC Session in September in the Peruvian capital, at which the host city will be chosen].
“Optimistically, Los Angeles and Paris are a good option for us, maybe better than Tokyo. There is squash in Hungary [Budapest is the third city in the race], there is a federation. But in comparison with the other two, the practice is lower.”
Asked which of Paris and Los Angeles he would prefer to win the race, Fontaine said: “It is clear I have more contact or influence in Paris than in Los Angeles but that’s why I hope that the former president of US Squash, Peter Lasusa, will join the board and taskforce for the next bid so we have equality in terms of chance.”
On Monday, it emerged that the board has asked Lasusa to chair a taskforce that will consider a possible new Olympic bid.
With just two, relatively low-profile assets in its rights portfolio, the men’s and women’s team championships (the PSA runs and is the rights-holder for the World Championships and the annual, top-tier PSA World Tour), the WSA struggles to attract commercial revenues. Asked to name the WSF’s sponsors, Fontaine cites just one, Dunlop, the ball manufacturer.
Therefore, he said: “We must re-brand squash as a product that is global and will attract the interest of the IOC, TV and commercial [companies]. But we cannot re-brand without the PSA. We need a collective discussion. I don’t want to anticipate the board’s understanding with the PSA [the PSA’s Gough was due to attend the WSF’s board meeting the following day]. But we have a saying in France: you do not attract mosquitos with vinegar. We need a brand to develop. Now the WSF and PSA, each entity follows its different events: individual for the PSA, teams for the WSF. Somewhere we have to try to consider with humility that what is common in the PSA and WSF is the ‘s’: squash. We need branding around that.
“We must join forces to promote this asset, which will benefit both entities. Before leaving the French federation, I closed a deal with the PSA. We will use PSA facilities [the PSA’s SquashTV online service] to cover the men’s world team championships. It’s a step forward.”