Lacrosse gains respect, but no Olympics bid

July 01, 1998|By Neil A. Grauer

IN TWO weeks, the eyes of the world's lacrosse fans will be on Baltimore, the internationally recognized "mecca of lacrosse," the largest event in the history of the sport will be held at Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Field July 16-24.

A paid attendance of 70,000 fans is expected to jam Hopkins' newly expanded grandstands for an eight-day tournament featuring teams from the 11 member nations of the International Lacrosse Federation. Joining the defending champion Team USA (boasting a large contingent of local talent) will be teams not only from such long-established lacrosse powers as Canada, Australia, England and the Iroquois Nation, but also squads representing Japan, the Czech Republic, Scotland, Wales, Germany and Sweden.

Back seat to curling

The quadrennial Men's Lacrosse World Championship, the eighth since 1967, is a 36-game, round-robin event. It is often billed as "the Olympics of lacrosse." What Baltimore's devoted lacrosse followers may be forgiven for wondering is why lacrosse -- the oldest North American sport -- is not in the Olympics every four years, especially when glassy-eyed viewers who sat in front of their television sets last winter saw curling become an Olympic sport. Now we can anticipate the spectacle of ballroom dancing and beach volleyball at the next summer Games.

The question of why lacrosse isn't in the Olympics is more nettlesome when fans realize -- or remember -- that once it was, in fact, accorded Olympic status, albeit as a summer "exhibition" sport, at the 1904 Games in St. Louis, the 1908 Games in London, the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, the 1932 Games in Los Angeles and the 1948 Games in London.

Indeed, at the 1928 and 1932 Games, the United States was represented by the Johns Hopkins team. The surviving players on those squads still recall the thrill of playing before immense, enthusiastic crowds.

In 1928, the Hopkins team beat Canada, 6-3; lost to Great Britain, 7-6; then saw Canada beat the British, 9-5. At the '32 Games in Los Angeles, some 100,000 spectators in the then-new Los Angeles Coliseum watched as humorist and movie star Will Rogers was the announcer for one of the games. The United States first beat Canada, 5-3; then lost to the Canadians, 5-4 (after a previous night's Hollywood party featuring excellent bootleg liquor); and then beat Canada again, 7-4.

Why lacrosse no longer gets an Olympic showcase -- while seemingly far less exciting sports do -- can be summed up in three words: politics, marketing and money.

Under the rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a sport can qualify for placement on the Games' roster for men only if it is played by 75 countries on four continents. Lacrosse is far from that goal. Only 11 nations -- the ones that will have teams here in Baltimore -- now field competitive lacrosse teams.

Although the number of countries playing lacrosse has doubled in the past five years, and Baltimore-based US Lacrosse, the national organization for the sport, is striving mightily to introduce it in other countries (the latest being South Korea), it still has a long, long way to go.

Another hurdle recently was breached: The Olympics requires that a sport have a central "national governing body." The formulation of US Lacrosse this year -- uniting eight previously independent national men's and women's lacrosse organizations into one -- has accomplished that requirement.

Yet the questions remain: Is curling played by 75 countries on four continents? Is beach volleyball?

A matter of politics

"The Olympic movement now is so political, so market driven," says Steve Stenersen, executive director of US Lacrosse and one of the sport's most active proselytizers. "With beach volleyball, you're marketing buff men and women in shorts."

Similarly, while lacrosse requires many players in expensive gear to field a competitive "team," that isn't the case with some other sports -- such as curling. "If you've got one curler in Uruguay, he's the Uruguay national curling team," says Mr. Stenersen.

"The IOC will bend the rules if they feel the sport will benefit them financially. And lacrosse isn't there yet. If lacrosse were a very popular sport in some influential countries [on the IOC], there might be some finagling," he adds, without completing the thought.

Bill Tierney, coach of Team USA (and of the three-time NCAA champion Princeton Tigers), says lacrosse is "just going to have to continue to grow and hope that it'll meet those rules someday."

"It would be crazy to stop dreaming," says Mr. Tierney. "I imagine it will happen someday."

"Just remember the Jamaican bobsledders," he adds with a chuckle.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer who has covered world lacrosse competitions since 1982.

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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