- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND (AP) - The IOC is adamant on keeping the current age format for Olympic soccer and will cut back the size of the tournament if governing body FIFA changes the player eligibility rules.

In an interview with The Associated Press, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said the quality of the competition would suffer if FIFA lowers the age limit for the men’s tournament.

Rogge said he has made clear to FIFA president Sepp Blatter that the IOC will reduce the number of teams if FIFA goes through with the change from an under-23 to under-21 format.

That could mean reducing the men’s field for the 2012 London Olympics from 16 to 12 teams or, in the extreme scenario, dropping the sport altogether.

“I’m not going to enter in hypothetical situations and speculation,” Rogge said. “It is clear and FIFA know it, that the ultimate eligibility rules will affect the size of the competition format. It relates to the value of the event.”

Under current rules, the Olympic tournament is for players 23 and under. Teams are also allowed to field three “over age” players. The restrictions were put in place by FIFA, with IOC approval, to protect the supremacy of the World Cup as the sport’s premier competition.

The FIFA executive committee recently said it wanted to limit the tournament to players 21 and under, or eliminate the rule on allowing three players over 23.

The IOC executive board is monitoring the situation and prepared to act.

“I said clearly to Sepp that the IOC is happy with the current system,” Rogge said. “I said very clearly to Sepp Blatter that a change downwards for the eligibility rule would definitely diminish the appeal of the tournament. Sepp knows exactly that this would affect the format of the tournament.”

“They know exactly what we want,” Rogge added. “We’ll wait and see what they’re doing.”

Blatter has said that teams that qualify for FIFA’s under-20 World Cup, which is played every two years, could be chosen to compete in the Olympics the following year.

FIFA put off a decision on the Olympic rules at its Congress in Nassau, Bahamas, earlier this month. Blatter said he was forming a special commission to further study the issue.

“There were probably different views,” Rogge said. “It seems to be clear that some continents did not want to change the rules and some did want to change the rules. Being a wise man, Sepp Blatter took it out of the agenda.”

In addition, Rogge has asked Blatter to put the Olympics on FIFA’s “combined program” _ the list of competitions for which clubs are required to release their players to national teams. At last year’s Beijing Olympics, where Lionel Messi helped Argentina to the gold medal, several European clubs fought to keep their players out of the games.

“For some reason, the Olympics program is not on this combined program, and that would have avoided lots of the problems we had in Beijing,” Rogge said. “We said to FIFA: please keep (the under-23 format) as it is and put us on the program.”

Rogge said he will contact Blatter immediately after this month’s Confederations Cup in South Africa to pursue a “sensible solution.”

He said organizers of the 2012 London Olympics need to know soon what format the tournament will take.

“We cannot let London be in uncertainty for too long,” Rogge said. “I will ask Sepp Blatter to make haste.”

The IOC executive board meets on Monday and Tuesday in Lausanne, and then again in Berlin in mid-August when it will finalize the sports program for London. Among possible changes are the addition of women’s boxing.

Women’s boxing was turned down by the IOC in 2005, but Rogge said the program commission now backs its application because the sport meets the criteria for universality and evenly matched fighters in each weight category. Men’s categories would be reduced to make way for women.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion, but the situation has definitely changed since 2005,” Rogge said.

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