TOKYO — For Japan's Mai Sato, watching all those gold medals being handed out in Vancouver is a bittersweet experience.
Sato knows the demands of being the best. In her world, blisters are the rule, bruises a way of life. And the training — five hours a day, five days a week.
The world champion in her sport, Sato is as athletic, dedicated and competitive as the Olympians representing their nations. And she thinks it's high time her discipline, too, got some real recognition.
Still, pole dancing? In the Olympics?
Absolutely, say thousands of pole dancers and the rapidly growing number of international and national federations transforming what was once the exclusive property of strip clubs and cheap bars into a respectable — and highly athletic — event.
"I could definitely see pole dancing in the Olympics," said Sato, who, a dancer since the age of three, out-twirled a bevy of athletes from 11 countries at the second International Pole Dancing Fitness Championships in Tokyo two months ago. "I would love to win a gold medal."
If cricket can't make it ...
It's admittedly a high bar.
Established sports such as squash and cricket have failed to make the Olympic cut, baseball and softball were recently given the ax, and the International Olympic Committee's decision to end its support of nonofficial, demonstration sports after the Summer Games in 1992 has made gaining a foothold, the way judo and taekwondo did, all that much harder.
Plus, pole dancing needs to first gain IOC recognition as a sport — an uphill battle if ever there was one.
No matter, pole dance enthusiasts say.
Hong Kong-based Ania Przeplasko, the founder of the International Pole Dancing Fitness Association, the sport's fledgling supervisory body, believes Olympic recognition is only a matter of time and would be a victory for underappreciated sports worldwide.
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"There will be a day when the Olympics see pole dancing as a sport," she said. "The Olympic community needs to acknowledge the number of people doing pole fitness now. We're shooting for 2012."
Too late for London
That's pretty ambitious.
It's already too late for any new sports to be added to the London Games. But the IOC decision to end its support of exhibition sports after Barcelona has not completely closed the door on Olympic hopefuls looking for a way to showcase their skills - Beijing did it with the martial art wushu.
Pole dance advocates note that more unlikely sports have gotten the IOC's nod.
Tug of war, for example, was one of the early Olympic medal contests. Equestrian events are in the Olympics, but who owns a horse? Curling, which virtually no one pays any attention to in non-Olympic years, has become one of the Winter Games' biggest darlings. Though they are not in the games, the IOC recognizes such obscure sporting endeavors as boules, powerboating, bandy and floorball.
KT Coates, a leading pole dancer in Britain and director of Vertical Dance, is leading the effort to make pole dancing a "test" event in 2012 and foresees a more formal pitch in 2016, when the Olympics go to Rio de Jeneiro.
"After a great deal of feedback from the pole dance community, many of us have decided that it's about time pole fitness is recognized as a competitive sport, and what better way for recognition than to be part of the 2012 Olympics held in London," Coates wrote in a petition she is readying for the London organizers.
"It has the wow factor," she told The Associated Press in an e-mail.
So far, the petition has about 4,000 signatures. Coates is shooting for 5,000.
Just like snowboarding?
Iina Laatikainen, one of Finland's top pole teachers, likens pole dancing to skateboarding and snowboarding, two sports that have gotten serious mainstream attention without completely abandoning their rebellious roots.
"I think getting in the Olympics would be great for the sport," she said. "I actually see a lot of similarities in what pole dancing is now for women with what skateboarding used to be for men back in the day. Pole dancing is definitely on its way to becoming a mainstream sport."
But some pole dancers worry the sensual side of pole dancing, and its counterculture undertones, would be destroyed in an effort to clean it up for the Olympics. After all, would it really be the same without stilettos, a boozy audience and a red-tinted spotlight? And how do you score for sexiness?
Others fear old-school pole dancers would be eaten alive by gymnasts, who could easily make the conversion from other apparatuses, circus performers or Chinese acrobats, who have a long tradition of performing aerial tricks.
"I don't need to see pole dancing in the Olympics," said Wendy Traskos, co-founder of the U.S. Pole Dance Federation, which will be hosting its annual U.S. championships next month. "I don't think this is necessarily the path that we need to take, as a sport."
Traskos, a former competitive gymnast who lives in New York, believes pole dancing needs to do more groundwork before it shoots for the Olympics. In particular, scoring for competitions needs to be standardized, she said, adding that the names of the techniques vary among different clubs in different regions.
"I feel there are many small, tiny, steps that need to be taken before this sport, or any sport, can get into the Olympics," she said. "We are on, like, tiny step 10 of 1,000."
Nevertheless, she said pole dancers on the medal podium is not as wild a dream as it might have seemed just five years ago.
"Now, when you talk about it you don't hear 'like a stripper' anymore," she said. "You hear things like, 'Oh, my friend takes classes for fitness' or 'Yes, I've seen it on Oprah."'
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