Despite being played by some 20 million people across 76 countries, the sport’s previous bids for the Games have been hampered by its lack of global participation and gender diversity, two key areas that are yet to convince the IOC the sport is worthy of Olympic status.
But Thirlby believes the sport can have a transformative impact similar to that of skateboarding, which made its debut at Tokyo 2020 and saw 13-year-old Sky Brown win bronze for Team GB.
“The Olympics needs netball. It’s a huge stage for any sport – we have seen that with the likes of skateboarding – I was hooked,” said Thirlby. “I took my son and daughter to a skatepark at the weekend like any other parent has done.
“If Sky Brown can inspire millions of children to get on a skateboard, I’ve seen first hand what netball can do within its own family and I think it’s just a bit of a sleeping giant from an Olympics point of view. Netball deserves its chance. We deserve to have a spotlight thrown upon us.”
Last month, the International Netball Federation officially rebranded as World Netball in a move towards gender parity as it announced a new, global strategy to grow the sport.
Liz Nicholl, who served as the chief executive of UK Sport from 2010 to 2019 before taking over as World Netball’s president in 2019, is understood to be a key figure in driving netball’s plans for Olympic inclusion forward.
While netball remains popular in Commonwealth countries, in more traditional Olympic territories such as the USA and China, participation levels and funding for national teams remains low.
There has, however, been a resurgence of the sport among African nations in recent years, with minnows Zimbabwe having finished eighth in their first World Cup in Liverpool two years ago.
“You only have to look back on the home World Cup in Liverpool to see the energy teams brought. It was culturally diverse, it was so fascinating,” added Thirlby.
“There’s an assumption that the game’s not played enough across key nations and to a degree, that might have been fair in the past, but I think Netball America has grown their game hugely and they’ve taken it very seriously.
“I think we’re in a much stronger position now than maybe 10 years ago, maybe it was more of a hope back then, but now we’ve got evidence to show how the game has grown hugely and professionalised over the past five years.”