Flag football at the Olympics: a decision with far-reaching implications

"It could be that flag football will make it to the Olympics one day."

Tommy Wiking, President International Federation of American Football (IFAF)

When Tommy Wiking made this statement during the Flag Football World Championship in Gothenburg in 2012, many of the teams, officials and fans in attendance believed it would be an impossible wish to fulfill. Now, 11 years later, it's a reality.

In a historic decision, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has announced that flag football will be part of the Olympic Games in 2028. This decision marks a significant turning point for the sport and may have far-reaching implications for its future development and global recognition. Flag football will now be represented on the world's biggest sporting stage. It is the culmination so far of a rapid evolution that the sport has undergone.

The inclusion of flag football in the Olympic Games program did not happen overnight. It is the result of years of dedicated efforts by the International Football Federation (IFAF), which has recently received considerable support from the NFL. The world's strongest football league saw a unique opportunity to get flag football on the program at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, and threw all its marketing might into the ring. The process began with recognition by the International World Games Association (IWGA), which led to the sport's inclusion in the 2022 World Games, an international multisport event for non-Olympic sports.

So what does this mean for flag football?

- Worldwide recognition: the inclusion of flag football in the Olympic Games program elevates the sport's status on the world stage. In 2028, there will be an opportunity to introduce the excitement of flag football to an audience of millions. Many of them will likely be exposed to it for the first time. The Olympic platform could spark increased growth around the world, especially in regions where the sport has been less established.
- Development opportunities: Olympic recognition brings additional funding and support for sport development at all levels. National sports federations and clubs can access additional resources to develop talent and increase the quality of the services provided.
- Professional leagues: The prospect of participating in the Olympics could encourage the creation of professional flag football leagues in various countries. These leagues can provide an avenue for top athletes to play the sport full time, leading to a higher quality of competition. A first step towards this is already happening in the U.S., where the first semi-professional flag football league is just starting. Personally, I see it as unlikely that a professional league will develop in any other country by 2028.

It is very likely that both the number of active players and the level of competition will increase significantly. Especially in the men's field, I see great potential for further development, because many tackle football players will consider either switching to flag football or at least pursuing it in addition. The Olympic dream of some will certainly be bigger than a participation in the Austrian or German tackle football league. Role models already exist: the two Italians Luke Zahradka (Milano Seamen) and Jordan Bouah (Vienna Vikings), who are both involved in the European League of Football, have been able to celebrate successes in the Italian national flag football team in the past.

It will be interesting to see how each nation's federations go about selecting their national flag football teams. Will they rely on the experienced flag football players who have competed in recent years, or will they leave the field to tackle footballers who are only now beginning to play flag football? The balance of power can shift extremely quickly. I assume that successful flag football nations like Austria and Germany will continue on the same path and try to improve continuously. But what is Finland doing, for example? In tackle football they have been among the European leaders for years, but in flag football they have always been in the bottom of the league. The Finns are more likely to have a chance of participating in the Olympics if they teach their tackle footballers to play flag football rather than relying on pure flag football players.

The extreme example is the USA. There are countless flag football players who are also very successful and have gone undefeated at the international level in recent years. There will be a semi-professional league in the future. But there is also the NFL. Miami Dolphins star receiver Tyreek Hill has already tweeted that he wants to team up with other NFL stars and go for the gold medal. How serious he was about it remains to be seen, but the debate over who should represent the U.S. at the Olympics has been sparked in any case. There's one thing the 2028 host certainly wants to avoid. Losing on its own soil in its very own sport.

Today's decision by the IOC means that flag football will be Olympic in 2028; in 2032 in Brisbaine, Australia, things may look very different again. Inclusion in the Olympic program is a penalty kick given by the referee (the IOC). The goal must now be scored by everyone involved.