Last week the President of the Federazione Cricket Italiana (FCI, the Italian cricket board) declared that cricket would be an Olympic sport if Rome won the rights to the 2024 Olympic Games. The announcement from the FCI came on the same day that the ICC announced it would apply for women’s T20 cricket to form part of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Durban.
While cricket at the Commonwealth Games has occurred within recent memory – the BLACKCAPS claimed bronze in Malaysia, 1998 – you have to wind the clock back a bit further to find Olympic cricket.
The first games of the modern Olympiad, held in Athens during April 1896, were deemed to be a huge success with participants and fans attending in record numbers. The initial programme for the Games, as outlined in the Evening Star in 1895, included three sports which would eventually be excluded for various reasons: football, rugby, and cricket. Four years later, in Paris, all three sports were back on the programme and, this time, they were all contested.
Cricket’s removal from the Athens programme was put down to a lack of interest from participating nations. At the time, international cricket was in its infancy – only England, Australia, and South Africa had played Tests and an official New Zealand side had only just debuted in 1895. When it was put back on the programme for Paris it very nearly suffered the same fate after Belgium and the Netherlands pulled out when they missed out on the hosting rights. That left teams representing France and Great Britain as the only competitors, but an Olympic cricket match went ahead regardless.
The Paris Olympic Games of 1900 were a messy affair, far removed from the epic sporting event we’re familiar with today. Where the 2016 Rio Games will take place from Friday 5 August through to Sunday 21 August, the Paris event took place between May 14 and October 28. There was also no pagentry or spectacle of an opening ceremony, the games simply began. Although they were an official Olympic Games, they were held during the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair). This event was so massive, with over 50 million visitors, it totally consumed the sporting events and the word Olympics was seldom used at the time. The Games were so poorly managed and marketed that the fledgling Olympic movement almost ended in just its second attempt.
One of the main venues, the Velodrome de Vincennes – a cycling track, was the scene of the only Olympic cricket match. Among the 14 different venues used through the games, the 20,000 seat Velodrome is recognised as the home of Paris 1900. In spite of all those seats, only a handful of spectators turned up for the two day cricket match. Any opportunity to sell cricket to a new audience would’ve been lost when the official publication of the Games described cricket as a “sport without colour to the uninitiated”.
The two sides that lined up to represent France and Great Britain weren’t true national teams. France were represented by the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA, or the French Athletic Club Union), a team made largely of British expats. Their opponents were the Devon and Somerset Wanderers, a touring team who were asked to represent Great Britain before they set off on a pre-arranged tour to Paris.
The Wanderers received silver medals for their victory, the French taking consolation prizes of bronze medals. Members of both sides were given models of the Eiffel Tower.
The visitors had two players with First-Class experience within their match-playing 12, with the rest of the participants noted as being “distinctly average club cricketers”¹. The skill level likely attributed to a pretty dour affair where two of the Wanderers players took 7-wicket bags and four of the USFSA batsmen made ducks in each innings, but the game wasn’t without it’s tension. Set the unlikely target of 185, after making just 78 in their first innings, the French side capitulated to be all out for 26. The innings was punctuated by the last pair fighting hard to get the team through to stumps and a stubborn draw but they fell short by five minutes.
Continuing the theme of the Exposition Universelle consuming the Olympics, it seems that neither team truly realised they were taking part in the Games and it wouldn’t be until 1912 that the match’s place as part of Olympic history was confirmed. After the false-start in 1896 and the non-event of Paris, cricket was removed from the programme and, so far, has not returned.
With rugby re-entering the Olympic fold after nearly a decade away, is it time for cricket to once again enter medal contention?
¹ The 1900 Olympic Games: Complete Results for All Competitors in All Events with Commentary by Bill Mallon, 1997