BOSTON — The International Olympic Committee has always prided itself on being unpredictable, as demonstrated by the string of upsets — like Atlanta over Athens for the centennial Olympics—in the selection of host cities.
But IOC decisions are easier to decipher if you keep in mind that the IOC cares first and foremost about two things: money and power. And it particularly rejoices when the most famous and powerful people in the world kowtow before the five rings. The last two upset votes — London over Paris for the 2012 Games and Sochi, Russia over Pyeongchang, South Korea for 2016 — came immediately after then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then Russian president Vladimir Putin came a courtin’ and a beggin’ to IOC confabs.
So it came as absolutely no surprise when the IOC executive committee recommended golf as one of two new sports to join the Olympic family in 2016. (For golf, it is actually “rejoin," since it was played at two Olympics, the last at the 1904 St. Louis Games.) The recommendation still requires IOC approval at its October meeting. But there’s no chance the august body will reject a man whose fame and clout rivals that of any world leader, one Eldrick Woods, better known to the sporting world as “Tiger."
After Woods said he would be honored to play at the 2016 Games and the U.S. PGA said it would even move golf’s fourth major, the PGA tournament, to accommodate the Olympic schedule, the IOC vote became a “gimme." Baseball was dumped (along with softball) after Major League Baseball refused to interrupt its schedule, as the National Hockey League has done, to enabled the game’s biggest stars could compete in the Olympics.
Last summer the Beijing Olympics basked in the presence of basketball’s Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, tennis’s Roger Federer and the Williams sisters and soccer’s Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho. The IOC viewed the chance to add Woods, with his unrivalled appeal for both sponsors and TV viewers, as more star power — far too rich an opportunity to pass up.
Rugby “sevens” was the other sport to get the IOC nod (over squash, karate and roller sports as well as bids by baseball and softball for reinstatement). And while the game doesn’t command the wattage of golf, the choice was equally predictable. The scaled down version of rugby is fast and furious, which makes it TV-friendly. And it continues the Olympic infatuation with sports — BMX, snowboard X, short-track speed skating — that feature crowd-pleasing collisions and “agony of defeat” crashes. (It has the added advantage of giving some non-traditional Olympic powers, like Wales and Fiji, a rare shot at an Olympic medal.)
The nod to golf is distinctly at odds with the high-minded rhetoric the Olympic nabobs delight in. To make way for it, the Olympics trashed softball, a sport replete with athletes who can actually serve as role models, one that has never had a doping scandal, one that reflected the IOC’s oft-stated commitment to women’s sports and, perhaps most important of all, one for which the Olympic showcase was critical not only to its growth, but perhaps to its survival at any meaningful level. The IOC might as well change the Olympic motto from “Citius, Altius, Fortius” to “$,$,$."
For golfers, just like the tennis players, the Olympic would be a nice score. But it would still only be the fifth or sixth most important competition of the season and nobody would trade a Masters championship or even a spot on the Ryder Cup team for an Olympic golfing medal.
The moments I will treasure from Beijing were produced by athletes — swimmer Michael Phelps, sprinter Usain Bolt, the Chinese gymnastic team, gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, beach-volleyballers Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, the U.S. men’s volleyball team and America’s saber ladies — for whom the Olympics remain the pinnacle of athletic achievement. Rafael Nadal won the men’s Olympic gold in singles, but a year later nobody can recall the match or the medal. It was completely overshadowed by Nadal’s epic triumph over Federer earlier that summer at Wimbledon.
Does golf truly need an international boost from the Olympics? No, not really. Not with the increasingly high profile of golf’s two premier international competitions, the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup. Besides, nothing the Olympics can provide golf will resonate around the world as did Y.E. Yang — a 37-year-old Korean with only one career victory on the American tour — going head-to-head with a Tiger and winning the PGA crown.