The quadrennial games are one of the biggest events for the sport, and officials say that success in Guadalajara will hopefully increase its popularity and eventually lead to Olympic inclusion.
“When you come to these countries and see the passion, the growth and the competition of it all, it gives our sport more and more hope,” said American player Rocky Carson, ranked No. 2 in the world and a gold medalist in Guadalajara. “As a sport we are not worldwide, we are mainly played in the Americas. The more countries we play, the better the sport gets and the easier it is to create a stronger racquetball.”
Racquetball is most popular in the United States, where nearly 3 million people play the sport mainly at universities and clubs. Mexico and Canada also have a substantial number of participants, and it is growing in Asia, too, but it lacks significant recognition in Europe and Africa.
“This is very important because we can showcase the event to all other countries so people can see what it’s like, and it’s a very exciting sport,” United States team leader Jim Hiser said.
Racquetball’s main goal now is to increase the sport’s popularity across the world so it can start vying for an Olympic spot at the 2020 Games.
“This is probably the greatest event for us in the history of our sport as part of multi-sport games,” International Racquetball Federation President Keith D. Calkins said. “I would like to think that our participation in these games will provide us some momentum to make racquetball a higher profile sport. It’s a slow process, but things are very positive for us.”
Racquetball was out of the 2007 Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro after being part of three consecutive games, but it was back in 2011 and will be played again in 2015 in Toronto. It is one of the 30 sports recognized by the International Olympic Committee which are not on the Olympic program.
Calkins said the addition of new courts across the world and the creation of more local federations are key to help the sport develop and try to make it to the Olympics in 2020. He said one of the main challenges is to help the sport grow in Europe, where it was played mainly at U.S. military bases in the 1960s and 70s.
“We will continue to put our best foot forward,” Calkins said. “Events like this are just magnificent, we have to continue working hard.”
The origins of the racquetball date to the 1920s in the United States, making it a relatively young sport compared to tennis and squash. Modern racquetball rules came about around the 1950s, according to Pan Am Games organizers, and were credited to former professional player John Sobek, who wanted an alternative to tennis that could be played indoors.
The Pan Am Games is the top team event for racquetball, but its pro tour is well established and has been doing well, with the top players making more than $100,000.
“It allows me to do what I love and to make a living,” said Carson, who won his first national title when he was 10. “Racquetball has taken care of myself and my family very well. I’m very fortunate to play this sport. I may not make what the top tennis player in the world makes, or what the NBA (players) make, but I feel very fortunate to be where I’m am.”