AKRON, Ohio – The Zika virus, polluted water, security concerns, an unstable government – pick your poison – have exposed a flaw in the modern Olympic Games. What do Jason Day, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, LeBron James and Steph Curry, all of whom have declined to be in Rio de Janeiro, have in common? A gold medal isn’t the pinnacle of their profession.
You don’t see any swimmers, gymnasts or track-and-field stars bailing on the Olympics. That’s because these athletes have spent four years training to make history in their respective field of competition. Scott has been the most prominent golfer to state what should have been painfully obvious ahead of his sport’s return to the Olympics after a 112-year absence: “I’ve always believed that having the amateurs in from the start would have been the best way for it to go in the Olympics,” Scott said during his news conference ahead of this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. “I’d make an argument that having the amateurs in the Olympics would grow the game the most, not us.”
Scott is right. An Olympic gold medal would’ve been the pinnacle of amateur golf, something to which to aspire. But the International Olympic Committee wanted Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Guess what? It will get neither.
The Olympics used to be the height of amateur athletics. Those days have come and gone. It officially “jumped the shark” – as the kids say these days – when the U.S. basketball “Dream Team” stole headlines in 1992. It is time that the pendulum swings back the other way.
More than 20 years after Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan teamed for a glorified all-star game, pro athletes – especially golfers – can’t be troubled. Many already are committed to one international exhibition to promote the sport as it is – the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup.
“If I think back to when I was 16 or 17 years old and a promising golfer,” said Scott, an Australian, “making the Olympics would be something that I’d want to do very much and also be a very big deal, not only to me but to my country, as well at that point. I think having a young golfer aspire to be an Olympian is more realistic as an amateur than a professional. … I believe putting the amateurs in would be a better result for growing the game, if that’s the point of our sport being in the Olympics.”
A gold medal is never going to eclipse the importance of golf’s majors. Scott pointed out that the Olympic organizers did no favors with scheduling and what he termed “just having another 72-hole golf tournament with a weaker-than-most fields.” Whereas the NHL shuts down and plays an abbreviated regular season during Olympic years, the PGA Tour didn’t cancel a single event and will hold the John Deere Classic during the Aug. 11-14 Olympic golf tournament. Also, the British Open and PGA Championship will be played in a three-week span in the weeks preceding the Rio Games.
“It’s just kind of shoved in there at a very critical time for everything I’ve ever dreamed of winning,” Scott said.
And that’s the most telling comment of all. Golf deserves a place in the Olympics, but the sport should take a page out of soccer’s playbook, which allows only under-23s to play in the Olympics. It’s the World Cup that counts.
In 2020, let’s hope golf’s Olympic organizers get a gold medal for exercising some common sense.