The CEO of Squash Australia is hopeful that squash will get the Olympics nod for Brisbane 2032, but has stressed that a home games will boost his mission of reviving the sport Down Under either way.
Talking to Squash IQ, Robert Donaghue also opened up on plans to get one million Australians playing the game again and build 20 new squash facilities, as he looks to resurrect Australia’s rich squash history.
Squash’s Olympic dream
Squash is one of three sports to bag a share of a AUD$17m funding pot in the lead up to the 2026 Victoria Commonwealth Games, it was announced last month.
The Commonwealth Games form part of a “green and gold runway” of major sporting events leading up to the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane (pictured below). The bonanza also includes the WSF World Junior Squash Championships, which will take place in Melbourne in July 2023.
To the chagrin of the squash world, the sport has repeatedly missed out on Olympics status. Most recently, it was snubbed in favour of breakdancing for inclusion in Paris 2024.
Although the jury remains out on whether squash will make the cut for LA28, Donaghue claimed the sport has a “real opportunity” for Brisbane 2032, thanks to Australia’s rich squash history.
The ability of glass courts to showcase Australia’s third largest city will be a key component of squash’s Brisbane pitch, he indicated.
“Squash has [produced] some of our greatest ever athletes,” Donaghue said.
“We think that the uniqueness of the glass courts to showcase the Olympics city gives us a real opportunity and is something other sports can’t necessarily do. If you take basketball, it’s in an indoor stadium in Brisbane, but you don’t actually see that you’re in Brisbane.
“Whereas, we could potentially have a glass court at South Bank, overlooking the city.”
‘The Olympics can’t define us as a sport’
While nine prospective Olympic sports including squash have been invited to bid for LA28, it is unclear whether Brisbane will follow the same process, Donaghue stressed. A CEO of the Organising Committee was only appointed in December, he pointed out.
“In Australia, lots of sports that aren’t currently in the Games have made their intentions clear that they want to be part of them, and we’re one of them. I think we’re a few years out from the Organising Committee starting that process,” he said.
“There’s a bit of water under the bridge before they get to that. But we’re certainly making it well known that we want to be part of the Games and are ready to put our best foot forward when the time’s right,” he said.
All is not lost even if squash fails to secure the coveted status for Brisbane, Donaghue maintained, however.
“It can’t define us as a sport,” he said.
“Whether we’re in the Olympics or not, there are opportunities and legacies to be had out of being a sport in the host country.”
Reviving squash in Australia
Australian elite squash is in a transitional phase, with no Australian woman or man currently ranked inside the top 50. This is something of a comedown for a country that produced the likes of Geoff Hunt, Heather McKay, Michelle Martin, Sarah Fitzgerald (pictured above) and David Palmer.
The decline in the number of facilities across the country has attracted the ire of the squash community, including from Martin herself.
Squash Australia’s 2022-26 Strategic Plan highlights four aspirations aimed at returning squash to its former glories over the next decade. These are to open 20 new squash facilities, have one million squash participants by 2032, have 10 female or male players enter the top 10 (over the next 10 years) and to host a Platinum-level Australian Open.
Stemming the flow
One of the body’s biggest challenges will be stemming the flow of squash facility closures, Donaghue said.
“We have lost a lot of facilities over the last 20 years. And a lot of facilities haven’t necessarily been refurbished over time as well, so they’re tired and not necessarily attractive places to go,” he said.
“We announced in the last couple of weeks in western Sydney in Penrith – where there’s never been a squash court before – that we’ve got some investment going into squash courts there as part of a multi-sport facility.
“There’s the work that Michelle is doing to make sure we save some of those centres in Sydney as well, which is getting some positive attraction. And with the Commonwealth Games and Olympics, there is a revitalisation in terms of how we see sport here in Australia and some opportunities for increased investment – even in outdoor squash.”
Having peaked at around one million, the number of Australians playing squash has fallen to between 200,000 and 250,000, Donaghue said.
“We want to see that increase to a million participants over the next 10 years, in the varying different formats. So more kids playing in different programmes, in competitions, casually, all those sort of things,” he said.
“There were a million people who used to play squash in Australia back in the 80s and 90s, so it’s not like the sport has never been there before. We want to get ourselves back to where we were.”
As reported by Squash IQ, Squash Australia will receive a AUD$2.36m in funding leading up to the Victoria Commonwealth Games.
This will be injected into its high-performance programme (as opposed to emerging athletes or grassroots squash, which are funded separately), Donaghue explained.
Although the funding is on a par with what Squash Australia received for its high-performance programme previously, Donaghue branded it “good news” that this amount is locked in over four years.
“This gives us some certainty around planning for the programmes and in the championships, and the athletes that we need to support between now and Victoria 2026,” he said.
Although there is a clutch of young female and male Australian players knocking on the door of the top 50 (including Jessica Turnbull, pictured above), Donaghue admitted that the elite game hit a “generational cliff” after the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
“It’s disappointing where we are, but it’s not a surprise,” he said.
“The immediate challenge is around how we accelerate the development of those athletes that are there now, so that they evolve into world-class athletes. But also not repeat the mistake of the past, which is to forget about what’s happening at the next level down in the pathway and developing athletes.
“We have to make sure that part of this funding is used to build a sustainable system that creates an ongoing pipeline of good squash players – and then world-class players,” Donaghue added.
“As opposed to going, ‘we’ve found two or three athletes, now let’s throw everything at them for the next five or 10 years’, and then find we’re in the same position where we fall off a cliff again. There’s a real focus now on making sure we’ve got an eye on the pathway from 10, 11, 12 years old, who can be the Olympians in 2032.
“It’s a challenge, because there are plenty of sports that want all the talented kids. So we’ve got to have a compelling case.”
Creating new heroes
Squash has “come back stronger” post Covid in some regions of Australia, but there is still work to do to broaden the sport’s appeal, Donaghue admitted.
“Australia is arguably one of the most competitive sports markets in the world. You’ve got rugby league, AFL football, rugby, cricket and netball dominating the airwaves and print digital at the moment,” he said.
“We need to get ourselves into that conversation. Bringing back the Australian Open to a Platinum-level event is an aspiration point – [it would be] a profile event for us to showcase the sport.
“Then at a grassroots level, it’s having a national participation programme that is in school and clubs and gets kids trying the sport – like pretty much every other sport has. We’re just not in that space at the moment.”
“These are the sorts of things that we need to lift the profile of squash and get it into the public’s consciousness,” he added.
“And then on the back of that, having heroes like Michelle Martin, Sarah Fitzgerald, Heather McKay and Geoff Hunt again.
“We need to create those new heroes for kids to look up to and aspire to be as well.”