Golf made a controversial return to the Olympic arena in 2016 after more than a century in the shadows. However, its return was criticised by many who didn’t think that professional multi-millionaire athletes — who earn millions of pounds and fly in private jets week after week — belong in the Olympics.
For Olympic athletes, there is no greater ambition than to win an Olympic gold medal, but it was debatable whether it would be the same for the golfers.
Although the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, golf was not included in the inaugural modern games and it had to wait until 1900 to debut as an event in Paris. Then after 1904 Olympics followed a 100-year hiatus until golf appeared on the Olympic stage once again.
1900 also marked the first time that women could participate in the Olympics and golf was only one of the five sports that allowed female participants. Some 2% of the athletes were women, though, and only a few of them golfers. In 1904, golf was a male-only Olympic event.
Antony Scanlon — Executive Director of the International Golf Federation (IGF) — visited Finland to discuss topical issues surrounding the sport both in Finland and worldwide, reflecting on the legacy of Rio 2016 while looking ahead to Tokyo 2020 and the future of Olympic golf.
Scanlon admitted that it was far from easy to bring golf back to the Olympics — indeed many thought it could not be done — and there were doubts in his mind about it.
One of the main concerns was the golf course, or lack thereof. At the time, Brazilian golf was in its infancy and the golfing culture was not established. As such, a new course had to be built for the Games. Ahead of the Olympics, IGF had grand hopes that “the course will be used as a public facility with the chief purpose of promoting golf in Brazil and the globe, representing one of the most important Olympic Games legacies for sport development in the country.”
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Just six months after the Olympics, the course was struggling with financial problems and was close to being shut down.
Other concerns were the Zika virus, security and the Olympic experience. But why worry about the Olympic experience when the Games are all about the Olympic Spirit? Golf was a newcomer and the golfers had no clue what it would be like to live in the Olympic Village and experience the event with other athletes.
All the golfers who participated in the Olympics were impressed by the spirit. Amazingly, 80% of the golfers stayed in the Olympic Village. It wasn’t obvious that elite professional golfers would be so pleased with the Village.
These fears proved groundless, even though quite a few top male golfers withdrew from the Games just a few weeks before they started. “Golf had a small but very strong field in Rio,” Scanlon said, underlining the point that all the top players will be teeing off in Tokyo in two years’ time.
The Major winner Bubba Watson was one of the players who enjoyed his time in the village. He explained: “I want to live the experience, I want to hang out there, meet the other athletes and enjoy my time as an Olympian.”
Scanlon explained that the Olympics took the players back to their years as amateurs, when they got to represent their country in the European and World Championships. They didn’t stay in luxury hotels nor earn money, and the game was the only thing that mattered.
Why does golf want to be a part of the Olympic Games? “We want to further spread the popularity of golf. The simple reason is to grow the game. Particularly we want to look at young people and women,” Scalon explained.
In Rio, golf was the seventh most popular sport. It won 38% more fan engagement than tennis and 64% more than rugby. According to Scanlon, it was an outstanding result for Golf. In his opinion, the challenge is now to be even better in Tokyo 2020. He thinks golf should use this opportunity and the lessons learned from Rio to engage with a young and gender-neutral audience. He noted that at the end the of day, it is the audience who pays for the professional side of golf.
In fact, Olympic golf also compared favourably against the Majors, the only exception being the 2014 Ryder Cup in Medinah. “Bigger than the Masters, bigger than all the others,” Scanlon said. “For a first-time event, it’s pretty good.”
“The total coverage came to 658.1 broadcast hours, reaching a unique viewership of over 285 million people having watched at least five minutes of Olympic Golf coverage. This means that 7% of the population watched a significant amount of golf coverage.”
In addition, the gender balance was also more neutral than expected. The Olympics is one of the rare ocassions that almost reaches gender balance both in participation and in fan engagement. This is an opportunity. The challenge, according to Scanlon, is to encourage this broad, new audience to become a permanent member of the game.
He said: “The spike in fan engagement and interest around the Olympics presents a great opportunity for golf to spread awareness, understanding and inspire interest among those unfamiliar with golf.”
Scanlon explained that normally golf attracts fans only during tournaments. The attention is higher in one-week periods, but with the Olympics the attention lingers. People start to speak about the Olympics ahead of the Games and continue after. He challenged the golf industry to rethink its communication strategies ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. He wants to be sure that golf will capitalise on this opportunity in 2020 to bring more players to the Game.
“That is our challenge,” he said. “Now we know that we have this time window and we need to make a strategy to use that.”
The media attention that the tournament in Rio attracted convinced the International Olympic Committee and the television rights holders that golf should continue to be part of the Olympic Games. Moreover, the commitment of the athletes towards the Olympics showed the importance of the event.
If golf didn’t have strong roots in Brazil, the situation is totally the opposite in 2020, as Japan is the second biggest golf market worldwide. As such, the road to the next Games might seem a bit easier than to Rio, but Scanlon and the organising committee want to ensure all the details are considered.
For example, the location. In Rio, the course was close to the Olympic Village, but golfers will have to travel 70 kilometres when in Tokyo. The competition format and field size will remain the same, as well as the qualification criteria. Overall, Scanlon highlighted his trust in the process. He was also pleased that golf took major steps in anti-doping work during and after Rio 2016.
There was also the challenge of fitting the Olympics into the tight schedule of the professional golf tours, though this has been amended. Now, one of the four majors will be moved to create a more comfortable tournament calendar.
Golf’s Olympic future looks bright. It’s set to appear in Paris 2024 — at the Le Golf National, which hosted the 2018 Ryder Cup — and it’s almost assured of a place at Los Angeles 2028. Whatever the future holds, at least everything is seemingly on track for Tokyo 2020. Whether all the elite players play at the Olympics remains to be seen. But at least we can ask Justin Rose whether he prefers major winner or Olympic gold medallist.
Featured photograph/Tokyo 2020