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Mullin sees tackle football following the flag game into Olympics

Flag football will become an Olympic sport for the first time in 2028, and Jim Mullin can see a day when the tackle game follows suit.
AFC middle linebacker C.J. Mosley of the New York Jets, left, grabs a flag off NFC return specialist KaVontae Turpin (9) of the Dallas Cowboys during the flag football event at the NFL Pro Bowl, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, in Las Vegas. The International Olympic Committee has included flag football in the official program for the 2028 Games slated for Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Flag football will become an Olympic sport for the first time in 2028, and Jim Mullin can see a day when the tackle game follows suit.

The International Olympic Committee included flag football as one of five new sports in the official program for the Los Angeles Games. The decision follows recommendations from the IOC executive board, IOC Olympic Program Commission and Los Angeles organizing committee over a two-year evaluation process.

"We're absolutely thrilled and delighted that after years of hard work, both at the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) and Football Canada levels, we're giving our young athletes something to shoot for on the Olympic stage," said Mullin, Football Canada's president. "I do believe you'll see this wave not just feeding Olympic teams to compete on both the men's and women's side, but also replenishing a lot our tackle numbers.

"That's because all of the skills you can learn through the flag game you can apply to tackle. It gives parents the opportunity and choice whether they want their child to continue to play flag or play tackle when they get into their teen years or even play both."

Predictably, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie was pleased with Monday's announcement.

"Thrilled at the addition of flag football to the Olympics," Ambrosie tweeted. "What a great way to share the ultimate team game with fans around the globe.

"I can’t wait to see Team Canada compete against the world’s best at LA28!"

Flag football in the Olympics will be played with five players a side on the field.

Mullin, who's also IFAF's general secretary, can see tackle football following in the footsteps of rugby to becoming an Olympic sport. Rugby is traditionally played with 15 players, but the seven-man game became an Olympic event for men and women in 2016.

"I really see an opportunity, just like rugby sevens, for tackle in six-versus-six," Mullin said. "There are African countries that are driven by a passion for tackle football so we need something that's smaller and more compact and allows athletes to compete also at that level.

"One step at a time on this because these are pretty big steps, I think, for the global football community."

Mullin credits the quick ascension of flag football globally for changing how many view the game. It's estimated 20 million players in over 100 countries, including Canada, actively participate in flag football.

"Flag now kind of breaks the mould of what people think football is," he said. "You have many orthodoxies surrounding the game in the past where there are tackle people who didn't consider flag as 'real football.'

"Going for an Olympic gold medal is a real competition and that's going to, thankfully I believe, shift the culture in the game to focus leaders on all different types of football in all different types of communities."

Mullin is optimistic flag football's Olympic inclusion will create more participation in all levels of football in Canada. But he said how countries qualify flag football teams for the Olympics remains in the planning stages.

Sixty-five national teams are slated to compete in various IFAF continental competitions leading up to what the organization anticipates will be the largest world flag championship in Lahti, Finland, in August 2024.

"I think there was a void in the marketplace for younger athletes," Mullin said. "And when I say younger athletes I'm talking about kids under the age of 12-to-14 that want to get involved in non-contact activity.

"Football is a compelling sport to them and (flag) is a great recreational sport that's economically accessible to everyone. When you take all of those factors and put them together, I guess we shouldn't be surprised with the impact it's had on football registration in Canada."

Canada's national teams are among the best in the world. The women's squad claimed the bronze medal at this summer's Americas Continental Flag Football Championship in Charlotte, N.C., while the men lost 38-22 to Panama in their bronze medal contest.

"We're in a phase right now where we're re-examining everything across the board in terms of our national teams," Mullin said. "If there's a limited number of teams that can qualify for this tournament, we don't want to be on the outside looking in when we have an Olympic tournament in our time zone.

"We know in the past both the men's and women's teams have won gold in the world championship but that's in the past. Many things have changed in this sport in just the last couple of years as we've gone from something that was really a recreational-type sport to something now that's totally driven by world competition."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2023.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press