PHOTO BY SCOTT MCCALL
TUE MAR 2 2021 | BRIAN LOGUE | FUEL
During this year’s US Lacrosse Convention, World Lacrosse CEO Jim Scherr provided an update on the organization and went in-depth on the path to the Olympics.
Scherr is perhaps uniquely qualified to provide this analysis, given his diversified background in the Olympic network. A wrestler who represented the United States in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Scherr went on to serve as the executive director of USA Wrestling and the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
He joined World Lacrosse in 2017 as the organization’s first full-time employee. The organization has four key platforms set forth in its strategic plan adopted in 2018 — grow, build, lead and influence. All of these will hopefully lead to the organization’s ultimate goal, helping lacrosse reach the Olympic Games.
“Those four key platforms, grow the game, build the platform and resources, lead the sport – meaning that our governance and structure get better, and influence the IOC are really critical points to achieving that vision,” Scherr said.
The drive to the Olympics was a primary reason the World Lacrosse position appealed to Scherr. Thanks to the support of benefactors that share the vision, the organization has made significant strides in recent years. World Lacrosse now has 68 member nations — adding five new countries from November 2019 through the end of last year — and Uganda became the first full-member nation from continental Africa.
“We’ve built our staff from just myself in 2017 to eight, soon to be 10,” Scherr said. “We’ve built our management capabilities. Our board continues to change from a board that was more operational to now a board that is more strategic. We’ve gotten our countries more involved, our general assembly is more vibrant, but we need to continue to improve our governance structure, both at the World Lacrosse level and at each of our national governing bodies.”
Improving the foundation is key, but World Lacrosse also needs to sell the sport to people that are in many cases unfamiliar with it. There are also logistical challenges to being in the Olympics — the International Olympic Committee (IOC) limit on number of athletes, tight television windows and infrastructure costs among them.
“We need to be viewed positively by the IOC to become an Olympic sport,” Scherr said. “We need to build our influence in a good way. We need the members of the IOC, and particularly those who are in key positions, to know they can trust the leaders of World Lacrosse.”
“THE OPPORTUNITY GOES BACK TO THE INDIVIDUAL ATHLETE AND THEIR DREAM OF BEING IN THE OLYMPIC GAMES. WE WOULD LIKE TO PROVIDE THAT FOR THE ATHLETES OF LACROSSE. IN OUR POLLING, VIRTUALLY 100 PERCENT OF THE ATHLETES WANT TO HAVE THAT DREAM.”
The most likely path to Olympic inclusion would be as a host city sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. There are 28 sports traditionally in the Olympics, but beginning with the Tokyo Games, originally scheduled for last summer, the IOC allowed the host to add “local” sports that they view as important to their city, region or country. Five sports were added for Tokyo and four for Paris in 2024.
With the strength of lacrosse in North America, Scherr feels that the sport has a strong opportunity to be included in Los Angeles in 2028. But it won’t be easy.
“This is a process that’s exceptionally difficult,” Scherr said. “There’s a tremendous amount of competitors because the stakes are so high. It’s so beneficial for a sport to get on the Olympic Games program, even if it’s for one games as a host city sport because you have a platform that not only virtually everyone in your country consumes, but more than four billion people around the world consume your sport in some way.”
But for Scherr, it’s not just about what it means for the sport, but what it means to the players.
“The opportunity goes back to the individual athlete and their dream of being in the Olympic Games,” Scherr said. “We would like to provide that for the athletes of lacrosse. In our polling, virtually 100 percent of the athletes want to have that dream.”
Scherr believes lacrosse has tremendous appeal to the Olympics.
“Lacrosse is an incredibly attractive sport for the Olympic Games and for the Olympic movement for any number of reasons,” Scherr said. “The first thing I would say, it is a great sport. It’s played by a lot of great people around the world. It demonstrates the key values of the Olympic movement – excellence, friendship and lacrosse. When you go to a lacrosse game, you can feel the culture of the sport.
“Additionally, the sport has incredibly growing numbers in North America, which is important to the L.A. Games, but also growing around the world. It is one of the sports that the IOC is looking to match up with in terms of creating relevance for the future. It is sport that is driven by youth. The IOC wants to embrace youth and it’s a great match that way.”
But in order to achieve the dream of the Olympics, the sport has to be nimble enough to fit the parameters Olympic organizers are faced with addressing.
The sheer number of athletes involved in the traditional field game makes it highly unlikely that version of the sport would fit into the Olympic program. So, over the last couple of years, World Lacrosse has been testing a new 6 v. 6 discipline of the sport to help make it more appealing for the Olympics. This is not an effort to replace the traditional field game for World Lacrosse championships, but rather a supplement, specifically designed for the Olympics and other multi-sport international competitions, such as The World Games. Both men’s and women’s lacrosse will be included in The World Games in Birmingham, Ala., in 2022, a showcase opportunity for lacrosse to show its value to the international sporting community.
“If you look at the games and you look at the numbers, the Olympic Games has been capped at 10,500 total athletes,” Scherr said. “The host city sports for Tokyo added 474 total athletes, 234 of those alone from baseball, softball. Paris added four sports, 232 total athletes. We have to keep in mind that we’re not going to become an Olympic sport with our full-field game. However, Lacrosse Sixes has an excellent opportunity, particularly if we can get this game to fit the television window, fit the window of live play during the Olympic Games, decrease the cost and complexity of staging this competition, but also create a product that is very consumable on digital and social media. That was our goal with Lacrosse Sixes. We’re on the way. It’s not the full-field game, but we think it offers an incredible amount as a potential Olympic discipline.”
World Lacrosse is also proactively working on an issue unique to lacrosse that Olympic inclusion would bring to light. The sport was originated by Native Americans and the Iroquois Nationals have competed in World Lacrosse championships on the men’s side for the last three decades and the Haudenosaunee women since 2009.
Current Olympic eligibility standards would not have a place for either team.
“The Olympic Games eligibility standards right now is for an athlete to be entered in the Olympic Games, you have to correspond to a national Olympic committee,” Scherr said. “The Iroquois Nationals, or Haudenosaunee, currently don’t have a national Olympic committee. They’re not recognized universally by the United Nations as a sovereign nation as World Lacrosse has recognized them. They have to overcome both of those challenges. Should they not overcome those, lacrosse would have to seek an exception. The IOC has made some exceptions, but that won’t be an easy process.
“So, we are working now with the leadership of the Haudenosaunee, both the Iroquois Nationals on the men’s side and the Haudenosaunee on the women’s side as they’re branded, to help them form a national Olympic committee, have that national Olympic committee recognized by the IOC and enter their athletes in that way. Failing that, we’ll work with them to try and gain an exception for the Iroquois Nationals and the Haudenosaunee to participate in the games. Putting the cart way in front of the horse there, because we’re not in the Olympic Games yet. We have a lot of work to do to get to that threshold.”
World Lacrosse has held bi-weekly meetings with the Iroquois Nationals and Haudenosaunee leadership because of how important their inclusion is for the sport.
“We think to get to our ultimate goal, lacrosse participating in the Olympics and all of our countries are eligible, then we need to build trust with all of our countries, in particular the Haudenosaunee. We need to have great communication and we need to work in lockstep as partners to get this done. We’re trying to do that, and I would also say the leaders of the Iroquois Nation are as well. We want to put the very best showcase for the sport.”