In a unanimous vote on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach announced that six additional sports were approved for the 2020 Olympic program. Among those lucky admissions into the Tokyo Games were softball, baseball, karate, skateboarding and sport climbing. But unlike the aforementioned, lacrosse is a sport that remains on the outside of Olympic glory.
Deeply rooted in Native American history, the sport dates back to as early as the 12th century when indigenous people played it for community and religious purposes. It was and still is viewed by many as a gift from the Creator; a game intertwined with enjoyment and healing purposes as the medicine game. With such a history in both settlement and expansion, why is lacrosse still so far behind as a global sport?
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The roots of lacrosse began in the Northeastern part of the U.S., so as a result, the sport has successfully grown on the East Coast most rapidly. In the 1908 Olympics, lacrosse was contested as a full medal sport, however, there has been little to no word since then about its Olympic berth in the future. For now, it has been the Federation of International Lacrosse that has maintained the global foundation for the sport. In 1968, the FIL hosted world championships for the U.S., England, Canada and Australia. Today, the FIL still hosts these events for men’s and women’s teams, however, the question still remains regarding when the sport will be featured on the grandest stage at the Olympic Games.
“Growth at the FIL level with involvement has been huge, but the competition level just being between the top two teams can’t just be that, in order for this to continue to grow people that know the game have to bring it to those areas [that don’t],” Halley Quillinan, editor at ILWomen and a lacrosse broadcaster for ESPNU and Lax Network told Excelle Sports in a phone interview. Quillinan has been involved with the game at every level; from her playing days at Syracuse to Inside Lacrosse to now being the most prevalent face in television broadcasting for the game. “I think hands down lacrosse will be an Olympic sport in my lifetime,” Quillinan added.
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The FIL was founded in 2008 and merged the men’s and women’s lacrosse governing bodies, and today, there are 30 countries recognized as members. Dave Vatz, who has been a reporter and analyst for Inside Lacrosse since 2007, sees 2036 as a realistic prediction for lacrosse’s entry into the Games. “The primary problem is not enough countries have a strong following in lacrosse,” Vatz told Excelle Sports. “The 2017 World Cup is expected to have at least 30 nations competing in it, which is a strong increase from the 16 in 2013, but still not where you are needed to qualify for an Olympic sport, which I believe is at least 40?”
The IOC requires 40 countries to play, however, a big step has already been made in lacrosse’s acceptance into SportsAccord and International World Games Association. Vatz pointed out a key factor that dates back to the bitter-sweet founders of the sport.
“Also keep in mind that the Haudenosaunee is not recognized by the IOC,” meaning the Native American people who have played the medicine game for decades would be denied the chance to compete because they are not recognized as their own sovereign country.
Amber Hill-Donhauser, who was the first Native-American female lacrosse player to ever play in an NCAA tournament (Syracuse, 2007) told Excelle Sports that although she would love to see lacrosse get recognition as an Olympic sport, her reality is also heartbreaking.
“As much as I would absolutely, whole heartedly love to see the game grow and provide medicine to those around the world as it does for me, it does break my heart a little knowing that I wouldn’t again be allowed to participate as a representative of our Haudenosaunee Confederacy,” Hill-Donhauser said.
When asked how the Haudenosaunee people could get accepted, Hill-Donhauser said it would take everyone coming together. “What we need to do is to come together and make a full stand with the United Nations,” she said. “But I think the world is scared.”
Vatz told Excelle Sports that he hadn’t heard any buzz about the women’s game in the Olympics, but recalled Tom Hayes—the director of development for the FIL—speaking to Lacrosse Magazine in 2013 about 2024 as a realistic time for lacrosse’s entry into the Olympics.
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When you look at the college game, particularly in the U.S., lacrosse would seem highly qualified to be an Olympic sport. It is the fastest-growing sport in the nation, according to the NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report in 2015. U.S. Lacrosse reported that between 2000 and 2014, men’s and women’s lacrosse outpaced all other sports in every division. Women’s lacrosse increased from 225 teams to 470 (109%). In 2017, 11 new women’s college lacrosse programs will be added, and in 2018, 12 additional programs will commence.
“The growth in the United States has been fantastic and Division I women’s lacrosse is showing that. Areas like California, Colorado, Texas and Florida are continuing to show more interest in the sport, and as more and more girls pick up the sport earlier in their lives, the talent there will continue to get better,” Vatz said.
Between the expansion of the FIL, lacrosse booming at the collegiate level on all coasts and the new professional women’s lacrosse league (UWLX), it would only make sense for lacrosse to creep into the mix sooner or later.
Digit Murphy, the founder of the United Women’s Professional Lacrosse League, just saw the league conclude its inaugural season this weekend. As the person who helped pick the first U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team, who is also deeply indebted to women’s sports and focused on the advocacy for them, Murphy sees the possibility of lacrosse becoming an Olympic sport as promising.
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“It is not the U.S., it is not Canada, it is about how do you get other countries to value lacrosse?” Murphy said as she referenced women’s hockey’s ability to grow the sport in other countries and jump start its Olympic run. “The only way you see change is seeing the people supporting it on the same page, if women athletes in other countries want to get behind it, awesome.”
Murphy was directly involved with the global development in ice hockey that produced a program that paired the most successful women’s hockey coaches and athletes with countries that struggle to compete internationally. The top four countries in women’s ice hockey are Canada, USA, Sweden and Finland, so all four gave training, coaching and feedback to other countries prior to the 2014 Olympics.
“[Lacrosse] has a lot of growth potential because you don’t need a lot of money to play it,” Murphy said. “Absolutely we can do it in lacrosse, we just need the resources.”
In due time, lax fans.