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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Is Rory's Olympic Withdrawal a Symptom of Something Deeper?

Brian Wacker did an article for Golf Digest about Rory's withdrawal from Olympic consideration and how it might affect things going forward. It does a good job of touching on some of the effects his decision may have on other golfers, especially when added to those who have already withdrawn and who sound less certain than they did a few months ago.

Wacker also lists some of the reasons golfers may be cooling toward Rio itself. I had already been thinking about all of these things, and I have a few thoughts of my own to add -- things which may or may not have been considered by those in charge.

Olympic rings

First, I do think the Zika virus is a larger concern than many of the Olympic supporters realize. For example, History Channel did a special on the Black Plague, and the last ten minutes or so were devoted to explaining how some unknown virus could rapidly spread around our modern world. This sort of documentary isn't unusual, and the dangers of a 'killer virus' are common movie themes. For Pete's sake, many zombie movies assume that a virus is the cause of the zombies!

Such things are firmly in the back of the public's mind, and the fact that virtually no one had even heard of Zika two years ago -- along with its rapid appearance in the US and the lack of knowledge about its long-term risks going forward -- make it one more uncertainty to be dealt with.

Wacker mentions Rory's recent statement that he “...had this argument with someone last week talking about golf being in the Olympics and how it can grow the game, but fencing is in the Olympics, and how many people watch that?” I wonder if that isn't a symptom of a much larger issue that hasn't been considered.

You see, the majority of Olympic sports don't have the professional power base that golf has. True, basketball, hockey, tennis, baseball and soccer are sports that do. Other sports like cricket and rugby have followings, although they aren't on the level of, say, basketball. But other sports like track and field, or swimming, or table tennis are sports that primarily gear toward the Olympics. The system of meets and competitions that exists for these events is aimed toward Olympic qualification. They happen only rarely during the year, and they pit the best in each country against each other. Most of these athletes know each other when they finally reach the Olympics, and are used to competing against each other.

And that raises the question of the value of an Olympic medal to a golfer. This one has been seriously underestimated. The criteria for Olympic qualification in most sports is considerably different than the golf qualification... and this raises valid questions that have been ignored.

In swimming, for example, most of the Top30 or Top40 in the world will make it to their next Olympics. If you win the gold medal in a swimming event, you have legitimately beaten the best in the world.

But will most of the Top50 in the world be competing in the golf competitions? Not hardly. Let's look at the women's teams, using these Olympic qualification charts for June 20 in this article and compare them with the Rolex World Rankings for the same week, since none of the women have as yet withdrawn. As things stand currently:
  • Ha-Na Jang at #8 in the Rolex doesn't qualify at all, due to the four-player limit in the Top15, nor does So Yeon Ryu at #11. In fact, seven Koreans in the Top25 will not be allowed to play.
  • Four Americans in the Top25, beginning with Gerina Piller at #16, will not be at the Olympics.
So 11 of the Top25 in the Rolex aren't even allowed to play. Going further down:
  • Catriona Matthew, #67 in the Rolex, is #27 in the Olympic list.
  • Nicole Broch Larsen, #88 in the Rolex, is #30 in the Olympic list.
  • Laetitia Beck, #220 in the Rolex, is #41 in the Olympic list.
So 40 of the Top67 in the Rolex aren't allowed to play. And 58 of the Top88 aren't allowed to play. And 179 of the Top220 aren't allowed to play.

Now I understand that the field has to be limited and you can't very well have only ten nations participating in an Olympic event, so don't misunderstand me. I'm not arguing that all these other players should be in the Olympics.

What I AM saying is that this event won't even have the strength of a 'regular' LPGA event. If Rolex #1 Lydia Ko wins the gold medal, how can you legitimately compare it to winning a major?

For the men, the disparity is not quite as great but it's still troubling. Victor Dubuisson, #71 in the OWGR, is #30 in the Olympic list. Graham DeLaet is #136 in the OWGR but #41 in the Olympic list. You could make a fair argument that the limited field of the Hero World Challenge is stronger than the Olympic field... and yet purists complain because the Hero gets world ranking points!

And we already have a number of players -- like Rory -- who have withdrawn from the event. How much will Olympic gold weigh against a major in the years to come?

It's possible that Olympic exposure might help grow the game in parts of the world where it currently receives very little support. But not even the Jamaican bobsled team, popular enough to have a movie made about it, caused serious growth in that event among the nations that weren't already involved. And building a golf infrastructure in nations that don't have one will not be cheap. It will certainly cost more than a couple of competitive bobsled designs and a few trips to a bobsled track.

I don't mean this to be a damper on all the Olympic enthusiasm. I hope golf succeeds beyond its wildest dreams. But golf has been left out of the Olympics for over a century while table tennis and curling held on to their spots (and yes, I enjoy the curling competitions), and it has a seriously bourgeois reputation to boot. That's a lot to overcome under any circumstance, let alone an Olympics troubled with security and health concerns.

So is it any wonder that Rory's concerns over Zika finally won out? I don't think so. Perhaps Rio, with all its problems, was the wrong Olympics for golf to enter. Hopefully we get more than one chance before the Olympic Committee pulls the plug on this experiment.


  1. G-Mac is the latest W/D. Inbee's thumb and Jang's incident could keep them out. There will be golf in Tokyo. Steffi Graf added gold to her Grand Slam in Seoul in '88.

    1. But the decision on 2024 will be made next year, so the 2020 golf results may have no bearing on its future in the Olympics.



  4. There would be more female amateurs than females from US

  5. I lost interest in the Olympics years ago when they started allowing Professional athletes to compete. I just never felt that in any way enhanced the prestige of the Olympics. My interest was even further reduced when wrestling was demoted to a non-core Olympic event. Please, wrestling a non-core event. Other than track and field events what could be more Olympic. Anyway the cost of hosting an Olympics is outragues now. I can't help and think that most sports would be better served by a World Cup type format as opposed to competing with all of these other sports for TV time simultaneously.

    1. I can't help but feel that an abundance of advertising dollars changes everything, Jeffrey. There are plenty of events that are played but receive very little coverage. Even with six diiferent networks and the internet broadcasting simultaneously. Welcome to the modern world, I guess.

  6. What about the abondant money flow on the pga tour. Those players are over paid. Moreover you compete against the best at least 4 majors a year plus wgc, plus extra tournaments in eu and asia.
    I can understand that the olympics aren't a priority for most golfers in the top 100.
    As for fame, you have the ryder cup, so to me they are just trying to not go by not showing they don't care because it's a national affair.