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Lacrosse, the state team sport of Maryland, isn’t being played in the Tokyo Olympics. That could change in 2028 in Los Angeles.

Paul Rabil, co-founder of the Premier Lacrosse League with his brother Mike and a former Johns Hopkins midfielder, said "there’s been a ton of work behind the scenes by the board of World Lacrosse and by Jim Scherr" to get lacrosse back in the Olympics. The sport could return in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Paul Rabil, co-founder of the Premier Lacrosse League with his brother Mike and a former Johns Hopkins midfielder, said "there’s been a ton of work behind the scenes by the board of World Lacrosse and by Jim Scherr" to get lacrosse back in the Olympics. The sport could return in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. (Steve Luciano/AP)

Matt Rambo can’t predict what he will be doing in seven years. But news that the International Olympic Committee voted to allow lacrosse to return to the Summer Olympics after 73 years has the former Maryland star attackman considering remaining in the sport long enough to vie for a coveted Olympic medal in 2028.

“I’m going to try my best,” said Rambo, 27 who won the Tewaaraton Award, the lacrosse equivalent to college football’s Heisman Trophy, in 2017. “I’m obviously going to be 34 years old when that happens, and there are going to be a lot of young guys.”

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Rambo’s enthusiasm was representative of the general lacrosse community that has longed for greater acceptance. That validation came last week when the IOC agreed in a session in Tokyo ahead of the Summer Olympics there to grant full status to World Lacrosse, the international governing body for the sport. The move represents a significant step toward both men’s and women’s lacrosse returning to the Olympic Games — though several other hurdles remain.

The development provided a boost of adrenaline to those who play the sport and promote it heavily.

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“There’s nothing bigger than the Olympics when it comes to athletics as a whole,” said former McDonogh and Terps midfielder Taylor Cummings, the only three-time Tewaaraton winner in the award’s history. “So to get on that massive international stage among the other sports that are so well known, and some that aren’t, just continues to show that lacrosse is here to stay. It brings a lot of joy to a lot of people from around the world.”

World Lacrosse has been working for more than a decade to persuade IOC officials to grant the organization full status. The IOC’s executive board granted World Lacrosse provisional status in 2018.

“I think the lacrosse community is pleased and feels like their sport has been affirmed by the IOC as a part of the worldwide Olympic family,” World Lacrosse CEO Jim Scherr said. “This provides patronage of the IOC, a closer relationship with the IOC and other international sports, as well as future opportunities to compete in the Olympic Games.”

Lacrosse was a medal sport at the 1904 and 1908 Games in St. Louis and London, respectively. It was a demonstration sport, meaning no medals were awarded, in 1928 in Amsterdam, 1932 in Los Angeles and 1948 in London.

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The earliest games during which lacrosse can return is the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, and World Lacrosse mustsubmit a formal application to be included in those games.

“It’s thrilling news for the sport — both domestically and internationally,” said Paul Rabil, a former Johns Hopkins midfielder and co-founder of the Premier Lacrosse League with his brother Mike. “There’s been a ton of work behind the scenes by the board of World Lacrosse and by Jim Scherr. … There are a lot of steps ahead of us, but our line of sight is on 2028 in L.A.”

Matt Rambo, left, the former Maryland star attackman and 2017 Tewaaraton Award winner, is considering remaining in the sport long enough to vie for a coveted Olympic medal.
Matt Rambo, left, the former Maryland star attackman and 2017 Tewaaraton Award winner, is considering remaining in the sport long enough to vie for a coveted Olympic medal. (Vera Nieuwenhuis/AP)

Lacrosse’s roots in Baltimore run deep. Johns Hopkins debuted its first lacrosse team in 1883, the women’s game began at the Bryn Mawr School in 1926 with the establishment of the first girls team in the United States. The club landscape for post-college players was headlined by Mount Washington, which dominated for 70 years after World War I.

The 2007 NCAA Division I semifinals and final at M&T Bank Stadium still have the attendance record for a lacrosse championship weekend in NCAA history. And US Lacrosse opened a new headquarters in Sparks in 2016 that includes a training center for the national men’s and women’s teams, an administrative center and the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum.

Lacrosse supporters have long pointed to surging participation to back their lobbying for the sport. The number of people playing lacrosse in the United States grew nearly 203% from 480,627 in 2008 to 829,423 in 2018, according to statistia.com.

Global numbers are more difficult to find, but World Lacrosse now counts 70 national governing bodies in its ranks and welcomed seven new members in the last 20 months.

The United States and Canada have dominated the world championships on the men’s side — the Americans have won 10 of 13 titles — and the United States (8) and Australia (2) have captured the 10 world titles on the women’s side. But other nations and territories have emerged as contenders.

In the men’s game, Australia has earned three silver medals and seven bronze medals, the Iroquois Nation has two bronzes, and England has one silver. On the women’s side, England has two silvers and four bronzes, Canada has two silvers and two bronzes, and Scotland has one bronze.

Men’s teams from Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Peru, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Taiwan played in the 2018 world championships for the first time. And women’s teams from Argentina, Jamaica, Norway, Puerto Rico and Uganda will be first-time participants in the 2022 international competition.

Rabil pointed out that Olympic recognition immediately elevates the sport’s scope at an international level.

“When I talk about lacrosse and it’s often to people who are unfamiliar with the sport — a couple of things come up, " he said. “One, it’s a Native American game, and so we talk about its history. And then two, the next question is, do you play in the Olympics?

“I think the Olympics has a brand that embraces all different types of disciplines from mainstream sports to sports like handball. So there is a range that people have come to expect and embrace. In the eyes of many, the Olympic Games and winning a gold medal is the gold standard in all of sports. So to be back on the membership stage of sports is everything that you could ask for.”

Both Rabil and Scherr also said that IOC’s decision could have a trickle-down effect in terms of incentivizing countries and territories to fund lacrosse at a national level, which in turn could fuel participation rates within their own populations.

Former Maryland midfielder Taylor Cummings, pictured in an NCAA Division I lacrosse tournament semifinal in 2015, said "the players of today and tomorrow have something amazing to aspire to now."
Former Maryland midfielder Taylor Cummings, pictured in an NCAA Division I lacrosse tournament semifinal in 2015, said "the players of today and tomorrow have something amazing to aspire to now." (Chris Szagola / Associated Press)

Much as rugby trimmed from a format of 15-on-15 to 7-on-7, lacrosse will switch from a 10-on-10 competition in the men’s game (12-on-12 in the women’s) to 6-on-6 for both genders for Olympic play. The reduction in numbers — when combined with a shot clock, a smaller field and faceoffs only to start quarters — encourages an attacking style that emphasizes speed and skill.

As fervent as those in the lacrosse community were about seeking Olympic status for the sport, supporters downplayed any notion of disappointment associated with the long wait.

“I just think we want to be recognized because it is a professional sport and there are so many people all over the globe that watch it,” Rambo said. “So for us, there was no reason to be mad about it. I just think we were patient, and we were waiting for our time because we know it’s a growing sport. I think this just ... points us in the right direction.

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“I still think it’s the fastest sport on two feet. So when people start seeing that, they’re going to be super interested in that.”

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Olympic participation in seven years might seem out of reach for current American stars such as Rabil and Cummings, but the latter said she is excited for future lacrosse players.

“This is great for the community, and it would perhaps may be a little bit selfish to be disappointed in that,” Cummings said of the possibility of missing out on a chance to earn an Olympic medal. “Whether it’s me or if I’m in the stands, the players of today and tomorrow have something amazing to aspire to now. They can play at the collegiate level, they can play internationally, they can play as pros, and now there’s dreams of being an Olympian. That’s great for our sport, and I’m just super excited whether that’s my teammates, myself, or the future to be able to go represent the U.S.”

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