I am obsessed with the Olympics. I always have been. I have not missed seeing a New Zealand medal won live for over a decade, and every 4 years, I still dream about what sport would allow me to make a late run for a medal in my 40’s.
I could write a whole series of blogs around why I love the Olympics, but the number one reason that always wins out every 4 years is the pride and excitement of the athletes competing. For many, this is the pinnacle of their competitive careers and the one chance in a blue moon to be seen on a truly global platform.
In recent Olympic cycles, several new sports have been introduced to the games. In 2016 Golf was reintroduced after a gap of 112 years. It was an addition to the program met with mixed emotions, in particular from golfers themselves. The majority of the world’s top players choose not to play in Rio, sighting issues with the Zika virus and safety in Brazil.
In 2020/21, there are still many top golfers, particularly in the men’s game, choosing not to tee it up. Most notably the likes of Dustin Johnson and Louie Oustheizen. Even the likes of Rory McIlroy have not expressed a tonne of excitement about being part of the event, despite heading to the games in 2021.
Golf purists have also expressed a range of emotions around golf’s home in the Olympics. Neigh sayers have expressed concerns that Olympic gold is not the pinnacle of a male golfers career. Instead, pointing at majors and team competitions such as the Ryder Cup.
Equally, the strength of the Olympic golf field has also been called in question, with some players in the top 10 of the golf worlds rankings not being allowed to play due to the Olympic quota system. This is not a unique issue to golf at the Olympics. Olympic fields in all sport are often artificially manipulated to ensure an equal geographic spread of competitors, and some competitors are even shortened from what an athlete may face at another pinnacle event (i.e., 5 set matches and 7 rounds at a tennis major).
Even the fact that Olympic golf feels squished into the golf calendar is throw up as a reason not to embrace it. Sandwiched between the last major of the year and the PGA playoffs, it simply is not the focus for some players.
I hear and understand that these issues are potentially real, but I am always here to say that golf needs to get over itself and embrace the Olympics, particularly men’s golf. The female game seems to already be on board with the opportunity, and the world’s best golfers seem genuinely excited about the Olympics as a pinnacle event in their career.
There are certainly some things I would change about golf at the Olympics if I had my way. Some form of team competition could be electric, and maybe even a mixed gender event could be trialled, alongside a traditional tournament.
But top golfers, who choose to miss the games for whatever reasons, need to understand that playing in the Olympics may not hugely excite them or pay them millions, but it puts golf at the adult’s table of global sports. And for a 2 week period, every 4 years, golf is no longer a rich person’s game, but a sport that everyone can relate to and learn about, even if there are players ranked well over 300 in the world playing.
For what it’s worth, I do think that golf and golfers, in general, will grow into the Olympics, and for future generations, the Olympics will be as important as a golf major and perhaps more so. Right now, we still have a generation of golfers who did not grow up watching golf and the Olympics. Their goals and perspectives have not been shaped by seeing Olympic golds being won. Plus, both golf competitions have been scarred by Zika and now Covid 19. Perhaps at a 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, we would not have any issues with top golfers pulling out.
In the meantime, however, golf needs the Olympics more than the Olympics needs golf. The Olympics offers a once in a blue moon chance to captivate further athletes, and golf needs to be part of that spectacle. So if that means playing an extra week every 4 years on top of your desired schedule, so be it.
It would be a true travesty if the top players in the world choosing not to embrace the Olympics now cost future generations this amazing opportunity.