Last month the England netball team won gold in a dramatic win against Australia in the Commonwealth Games. Photographs of the winning team decorated the front pages and England Netball coach Tracey Neville was almost more talked about than her famous ex-footballer siblings. Despite this recognition and its popularity at a grassroots level, netball is still trying to become an Olympic sport.

The International Netball Federation’s (INF) approach

The INF seems to be taking a proactive approach in their attempt to make netball an Olympic sport.

Their website has a statement setting out their position on the Olympic Games. In this statement they talk of how:

  • The INF has been recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) due to netball’s global popularity, strong and effective governance structures and compliance with the Olympic Charter.
  • The INF regularly meets with representatives from the IOC.
  • The INF’s Articles of Associations outline the purposes of the company and, unsurprisingly, their purposes are entwined with the Olympic movement. For example:

2.1 The Company’s fundamental purposes are:

  1. to promote, improve and develop Netball globally, at all levels, in accordance with the ideals and objects of the Olympic and Commonwealth movements, and without any discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, religion, creed, political beliefs, disability, marital status, sexual orientation or trade union activity;
  2. to maintain Netball on the Commonwealth Games programme and to strive for the addition of Netball to the Olympic programme; and
  3. to assume responsibility for the technical control and direction of Netball at the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games.

The INF put these words to the test. Under the flexibility awarded by the IOC Agenda 2020, the Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (OCOG) can propose new sports to the IOC for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The INF responded to this and applied to be considered alongside 25 other international sporting federations. The INF did not even make it to the shortlist… Eventually the IOC approved baseball/softball, sport climbing, surfing, karate and skateboarding and these will now be sports in the 2020 Games. Although this is only a temporary introduction, if successful, the sport will be more likely to be considered permanently.

The speculation is that the INF were unsuccessful because netball is not popular in Japan as they do not even have a national team. If this logic applies then the INF’s applications to Paris for 2024 Olympics and Los Angeles for 2028 Olympics may also be unsuccessful. This is the main obstacle faced by the INF…few countries influential in the Olympics play the sport.

Which countries play netball?

Netball originated from basketball, which arrived in England from America in the 1890s. Basketball was adapted in England then spread across the British Empire. It is due to this expansion that the Commonwealth countries are traditionally good at the sport. In fact, the top five ranked international teams are Australia, New Zealand, England, Jamaica and South Africa. In comparison, the United States are ranked 29th globally and neither China nor Russia have a national team. Why would the nations with the biggest voices in the Olympics want to risk giving away medals?

Gender imbalance: an advantage or a disadvantage?

Continuing with the historical theme, netball was first introduced as a form of physical fitness for women to better prepare them for motherhood and in the wider context of women’s emancipation. Although these may not be the reasons why women play the sport today, more than 100 years later and netball is still mostly played by women. Is this gender imbalance preventing the sport from competing in the Olympics?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) published the report of the Gender Equality Review Project in March 2018 where they made 25 recommendations. The first recommendation for Olympic Games participation was:

“For all team sports/disciplines/events, ensure an equal number of teams and, where appropriate, an equal number of athletes for both genders”.

This lack of male participation also means there is no men’s game that can provide financial support or which the women’s game can grow from. Establishing women’s sport through its own means would be commendable but it would take time. Given the sport’s current momentum, this might be time the INF does not have.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be thinking like England Netball Chief Executive Joanna Adams. She thinks the gender imbalance puts the sport in a unique position and does not want to take away from that. In the 2016 Games, 45% of Olympic athletes were women. If netball was to be included in future Olympics, it could help bridge this gap. It might be something the IOC can embrace as after all, other women only Olympic sports do exist.

What now?

Netball is a fast growing sport and it needs to keep this momentum. It cannot afford to wait until 2032 for a Commonwealth country to host the Olympic Games so it can be included on a temporary basis so the INF will need to find another route.