Opinion: Will Golf Follow the Same Path as Tennis at the Olympics?

In 2009 Golf was one of two sports chosen to be part of the 2016 Olympics. The decision was criticize not only by people who dislike the sport, but even among fans of the sport. Does it really encompass Olympic values, are there enough nations competing, is it even a sport were questions asked by people without the full knowledge of the sport. The golf supporters weren’t any better; the schedule is already too full, will the top players choose to compete, does golf need the Olympics? All these questions were also asked when Tennis made its re-entry to the Olympics in 1988.

While some of the top players went to the 1988 Olympics the field was severely lacking with many of the top players, especially in the men’s draw not participating. Who can blame them; while nations do compete in the Davis or Federation Cup tennis for the most part was considered an individual’s sport and with no money or even ranking points at the time, a gold medal was considered nothing more than a trophy. Of course if you ask the men’s and women’s singles winners at the 1988 Olympics, Miloslav Mecir and Steffi Graf respectively they may give you a different answer, but that was the general overall feeling at the time.

It has been almost 27 years since the 1988 Olympics which means there are very few active players that remember a time when tennis wasn’t played at the Olympics. Many of these players have watched their idols win medals and the joy they’ve shown which makes them in turn want to become Olympians. For example while about half the top players declined to play in 1988 by 2012 only 18 top men and 17 top women missed the Olympics; 18 of them were due to nations only allowed to bring 4 athletes per gender while 9 were due to injuries. Of the 8 remaining six of them did not meet minimal Davis/Fed Cup requirements while Mardy Fish was eligible to compete, but declined. The status for Florian Mayer is unknown.

While the minority would rank Olympic gold as the pinnacle of tennis, today it is at least seen as the next best thing after winning the Grand Slam while others feel a gold medal is comparable to winning a Grand Slam. This is despite the ATP and WTA tours only giving ranking points that would place it between 1000 and 500 level events (between 2nd and 3rd tier at the tours) which essentially means the Olympics is the 15th most important event in a calendar year. Of course reasons for the low point value could be because of the 4 athletes per nation limit and the associations not wanting an event which shows up once every four years messing with the rankings.

Where does this leave golf? Well if history is going to repeat itself the strength of the 2016 field will be called into question. While the International Golf Federation has done a decent job on getting commitments from the highest ranked players and while no player has flat out declined a spot yet it will be interesting to see who competes when the rankings and acceptances are published.

The International Golf Federation also has not done itself any favors with its qualification format. Unlike in tennis where 4 athletes per nation can compete golf only allows 4 athletes per nation to compete if they are all in the top 15, after that only 2 athletes per nation will compete. Looking at the Olympic rankings in golf and assuming everyone accepts the lowest ranked man is ranked 340 and the lowest rank women is ranked 450 meanwhile in 2012 tennis whom has a similar size field the lowest non-wild card ranked athletes were 72 for men and 70 for women and that’s taking into account injuries and declined spots.

Even if the strength of field for golf is like 1988 tennis I do believe the sport will head in the same direction and maybe in about 20 years people will begin ranking Olympic gold alongside the four Opens in golf. The unfortunate part however, is that golf won’t have the same luxury tennis had when it first joined. With the increase competitive nature of summer Olympic events golf is only guaranteed to be an Olympic sport for 2016 and 2020, after that it risks being removed. Their first impression in 2016 will be very important (though the golf course controversy in Brazil isn’t helping) as the IGF will need to work extra hard to assure at least the top 15 eligible athletes attend and hope that the magic of an Olympic medal ignites the desire for other golfers to play at the Olympics.

References

Paul Fein. How Important Is an Olympic Gold Medal in Tennis? Access on March 19 2015.
Wikipedia. Tennis at the 2012 Summer Olympics – Qualification. Access on March 19 2015.
IGF. Golf and the Olympic Games. Access on March 19 2015.

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