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Why Isn’t Lacrosse an Olympic Sport?

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The short answer is: It’s complicated. The good news is: It’s likely to return.

Field lacrosse was contested as a full medal sport at the 1904 and 1908 Olympics and was a demonstration sport in 1928, ‘32 and ‘48. Canada took the 1904 gold, in a year that saw a Mohawk squad compete, and defended it’s title four years later. Since then, lacrosse has continued to expand—but not in the Olympics.

In the U.S., no sport has grown faster at the high school level over the last 10 years, according to Lacrosse has also been the fastest growing sport at the NCAA level over the last six years, and the game’s taking off internationally.

So what’s the problem? The arcane rules and lumbering machinations of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have prevented the return of the Creator’s Game to the Games. Here’s the IOC’s statement on how a sport becomes Olympic:

To make it onto the Olympic programme, a sport first has to be recognised: it must be administered by an International Federation which ensures that the sport's activities follow the Olympic Charter. If it is widely practised around the world and meets a number of criteria established by the IOC session, a recognised sport may be added to the Olympic programme on the recommendation of the IOC's Olympic Programme Commission.

The big hurdle for lacrosse had been the establishment of an international governing federation for the sport, and getting it recognized by the necessary agencies, but that’s been successfully cleared recently.

In January, the International World Games Association (IWGA), which is responsible for governing non-Olympic sports, recognized lacrosse as one of five new disciplines to be contested at the 2017 World Games in Poland. The incorporation of lacrosse in the World Games, which is an IOC regulated event, takes the sport one step closer to inclusion in the Olympics. An appearance in Poland also will allow lacrosse to be introduced to many countries and people who have never seen or heard of the sport before.

In May, the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) was accepted as the 106th member of SportAccord. The decision was formally announced at a meeting of the organization's general assembly in Quebec City, Canada.

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SportAccord is the umbrella organization for all Olympic, non-Olympic, and international sports federations and was formed to promote communication and cooperation among the various groups. The FIL, which was established in 2008 and of which U.S. Lacrosse is the biggest annual funder, sanctions five world championship lacrosse competitions: men's and women's field, men's and women's U19 field and men's indoor. The Iroquois Confederacy is a founding member of FIL. (The Haudenosaunee men’s U19 team recently returned from Finland with the bronze medal.)

"The FIL sees its membership with SportAccord as an opportunity for increased cooperation, access to services and promotion as well as being the first step in the pathway toward Olympic recognition," according to a press release.

In January, China and Peru became the 44th and 45th FIL member nations (40 are needed for SportAccord membership). They are making plans to participate in the 2014 FIL Championships in Denver, hosted by U.S. Lacrosse, reported Lacrosse magazine. Prospective new FIL members include Chile, Columbia, Croatia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Greece, Malaysia, Panama, Philippines and Singapore. Clearly, the sport’s appeal is global.

“These two organizations [IWGA and SportAccord] sort-of act as screening organizations before you can actually approach the IOC for consideration,” said Tom Hayes, who overseas development for FIL. That process, of approaching the IOC, is underway.

“From the time you are admitted [by the IOC], it is a seven-year period before you can actually compete in the Olympic Games,” added Hayes. Golf and rugby sevens, for example, will debut at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games after being approved back in 2009 by the IOC Session.

The IOC currently recognizes 67 international sport federations as administering one or more sports at the world level. The FIL said in its June 2012 development report that 2020 is the earliest opportunity for Olympic participation and that 2024 is the "realistic opportunity."

“I’m quite optimistic lacrosse will be in the Olympics, it’s just a matter of when,” said Hayes.

Indian Country eagerly awaits.