We have followed, with great interest, the journey that golf has taken in becoming an Olympic sport. Whilst it’s been a complicated and time consuming process, with only a couple of months until the Rio Games begins its fascinating to see whether this will turn out to be a success for both the Games and the sport of golf.
The case by the International Golf Federation for inclusion is clear; golf desperately needs exposure to a new, younger global audience, something that the Olympic games can easily deliver. However, whilst golf’s governing body has tried desperately hard for its inclusion we believe that this won’t be a successful chapter in the sport’s history unless all the top players buy-in to their obligation of promoting the sport on a new global stage.
At the initial stages of planning it was interesting to hear some of the concerns from golf’s global circus; players were worried because they would have to stay in the Olympic village rather than 5 star hotels, they would have to travel to the golf course on the athlete coaches rather than their usual limousines, no accommodation was being provided for player’s agents and there would be a very limited number of press accreditation. These thoroughly un-Olympic gripes were just some of the comments we heard during the planning stages and once again raised serious questions about the suitability of golf as an Olympic sport. However, presumably these would just be the teething problems any major global sport having to fit into the Olympic framework would need to address; the players desire to win an Olympic medal would surely overcome all of these issues, wouldn’t they?
Sadly, this does not appear to be the case. So far the list of top golfers who have withdrawn from the Olympics reads Vijay Singh, Marc Leishman, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, with Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, only this week, expressing some doubts. There have been a variety of reasons given (lack of ranking points, overcrowded schedules, need for family time and the Zika virus) however these are tenuous excuses at best. (It is worth noting that we are not belittling the seriousness of the highly destructive Zika virus, however highlighting that athletes from the other Olympic sports are not threatening to withdraw on these grounds.) Given that there are four former Major winners on this list (and potentially five if McIlroy also withdrew) there is a massive problem for the sport and the image it is trying to portray. The antipathy towards the Games from some of the sport’s biggest names thoroughly undermines the rationale for golf’s inclusion.
Golf is a spectacle which has provided some of the greatest battles throughout sporting history, be it at Ryder Cups or the in Majors. However, the strength of golf’s major sporting properties is the reason why the Olympic inclusion is flawed. Winning the Open Championship or at Augusta National, or sinking a winning Ryder Cup putt will always be the pinnacle of the sport. From both a prestige and a commercial perspective, being an Olympic golf champion will never rival a Major winner. The very ethos of the Olympics is that it is the pinnacle of any competing athlete’s life; the pain and sacrifices that they have had to endure in order to appear at an Olympic Games, let alone win a medal, is enormous. Unfortunately this does not apply to professional golfers to the same degree; if you were to ask them whether they wanted to win a green jacket or an Olympic gold they wouldn’t think twice…………..in fact Messrs Singh, Leishman, Scott, Oosthuizen and Schwartzel have already answered this question very clearly. Whilst I’m sure they would enjoy winning an Olympic medal, fundamentally the make-up of a professional golfer is completely different to other Olympians, golf is structured so that they are solely driven by money. The Olympics cannot and will not deliver the financial gains, directly or indirectly, which is why there have been these withdrawals, their priorities are elsewhere. For every big name that drops out, more credibility is lost and the sport’s inclusion is undermined further.
We do not have an axe to grind with professional golfers, nor are we making a judgement about their willingness to compete in the Olympics. Professional golf is a great sport and amazing commercial success story. However, we believe that the withdrawals (and there are likely to be more) prove why golf should not be included in the Olympics. The IGF has a massive challenge on its hands, it either needs to reverse the attitude of all the world’s top players for the good of the global game and ensure that this is an unmissable event (which will be no easy task) or withdraw from future games gracefully. Rather than shoe-horning additional events, let golf have its day in the sun during other times of the sporting calendar and leave the traditional Olympic sports to enjoy the limelight for the good of the Games and its fans. Currently, the credibility of both the game of golf and the Olympics is being undermined by its inclusion. Action needs to be taken to ensure we are not in a similar position when we arrive at the Games in Tokyo.