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Why Olympic Football Needs to Happen

In Football on February 5, 2014 at 1:16 pm

With the Winter Olympics set to begin on Thursday, CDH has the games on the mind. But we’re not thinking bobsled — we’re thinking football. Today, Ian Brickey takes a closer look at the possibility of American football as an Olympic sport.

Will an Olympic gold medal rival a Super Bowl championship as the top achievement in football? It could happen sooner than you think.

The International Federation of American Football received provisional recognition from the International Olympic Committee in a Dec. 10 vote. Fox Sports’ Alex Marvez reported that the IOC could vote as soon as 2017 to approve football as a full-fledged Olympic event, with competition beginning at the 2024 Summer Games.

Olympic-Logo

The IOC cited football’s international growth in popularity as the rationale for the decision. The IFAF currently features 64 member countries and offers three versions of the game: tackle, flag and beach. Football was previously featured as a demonstration program at the 1904 and 1932 Summer Games.

It’s not unheard of for long-dormant sports to reemerge on the Olympic lineup. Rugby union appeared at the 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 Summer Games, but was discontinued due to poor levels of competition among teams. However, in 2009, the IOC voted to reintroduce the sport at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.

Some have suggested that similar problems of competitiveness could hamper American football at the Olympic level. The organization USA Football estimates that 300,000 American football players competed internationally in 2012, a majority of who were Canadian. With the vast majority of players coming from North America, how would international competition work?

It could be simpler than you think. Professional athletes have played in the Olympics for nearly four decades, and the United States regularly sends its best pros to compete in sports, especially American-dominated sports like basketball and baseball (through 2008). But even with its all-star athletes, the U.S. national basketball, baseball and hockey teams aren’t unstoppable forces. They can, and often do, lose to international competition — even in “American” sports.

How does that translate to football? Admittedly, football is a unique case because its greatest players hail almost exclusively from the United States. Professional leagues exist internationally, but the highest levels of competition are only played on Sundays. But there is a way to make American football a decent, even exciting, game for international competition. Think of it this way: college football all-star team.

The IOC is not above tweaking the rules of competition to keep sports fair for countries that aren’t traditional powerhouses.[1] Look at Olympic soccer. The first professional soccer players competed at the 1984 Summer Games. But to prevent traditional European and South American teams from running away with the competition, FIFA and the IOC struck a bargain: teams from Africa, Asia, Oceania and CONCACAF could field their best players without limitation, while UEFA and CONMEBOL countries could not include players that had appeared in the World Cup. The rules were altered in 1992, mandating that competitors be under 23, with three over-23 players per team. Similar rules could be introduced for football.

With strict age limits on competitors, two things happen. One, international teams actually have a chance of winning. And two, the United States could field a true college all-star team for the first time. Yes, so-called “all-star” exhibitions currently exist, but none of them are a true all-star game. Some require NFL draft eligibility, others require players to have exhausted their NCAA eligibility, and a few are limited to non-FBS players. But an American Olympic football team could be an all-star team in every sense. Imagine the U.S squad taking the field in 2012 at London’s Wembley Stadium. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel throwing to South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. Alabama’s C.J. Mosley striking fear in the heart of opposing quarterbacks. Missouri’s Henry Josey streaking down field after a perfectly-executed stiff-arm.

Right now, it’s just a dream. But it’s a dream that could easily become a reality. The players should be willing — if they’ll compete for the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl crown, they’ll compete for Olympic gold.


[1] That might be the first time the words “fair” and “IOC” have appeared together in a sentence unironically since 1968.

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