Jeremy White: The Olympics Are a Circus

…and golf doesn’t need to be a sideshow.

The Olympics are a curiosity. They are a unique event during which we, the world, get to see amazing feats of skill, speed, agility, strength and endurance.

The Olympics are fascinating for the sport lover because of all the niche sports that they can see at the elite level. All in a short and sweet two week period. Sorry if you’re a fan of badminton or Greco-Roman wrestling or archery or synchronised swimming or dressage and could watch or participate in them all day, but for most people, once every four years is just fine, thank you very much.

Any more often, they’d become a glorified world championship of everything. The thing is, world championships in everything already exist, and apart from being far less ruinous to host, are followed by real fans. You’re not likely to hear this in a bar, “Hey fellas, forget the golf trip next year. Let’s all save up and fly to Bulgaria for the world trampoline championships…” And yes, they really are in Bulgaria next year.

Look at a real circus. Cirque Du Soleil being a good example. Attendees get to see amazing feats of skill, speed, agility and strength. Not to mention the clowns. The company itself, knows too, that infrequent visits to each city are the key to maintaining interest. They usually only roll into town once every two years or so, bringing different shows each time. Sure the acts are similar, but they’re wearing different costumes and telling a different story. So too the Olympics. It’s the uniqueness that makes it interesting.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to trivialise the Olympics (or circuses for that matter). The Games are great fun to watch, with plenty of narratives other than the events themselves. Host city suitability, economic and security issues, performance-enhancing drugs and the number of condoms used in the athlete’s village. I love it when Australia’s national anthem is played at a medal ceremony and one of my countrymen or women gets reward for a lifetime of toil. Much of the appeal, however, is the rarity of the Olympics to the mainstream.

I don’t think golf belongs there. Apart from not being the ultimate test for the sport, a Major, there isn’t a sense of that rarity.

Back to the golfing circus, and a look back in time.

In order to fit the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requirements for a participating sport, the R&A changed the name of the World Amateur Golf Council to the International Golf Federation (IGF), then in 2008 formed an Olympic Golf Committee (OGC) in order to submit a case for golf’s inclusion in the Games. Later in 2010, the IGF moved its headquarters to Lausanne, Switzerland (where the IOC is also located), and ratified an additional membership category for professional golfers.

At the time of the OGC’s formation, then Chief-Executive of the R&A, Peter Dawson, gave reasons for building golf’s case, and was quoted as saying:

“…increased exposure for golf, more government support, increased funding both from government and from Olympic participation, and so on. And I have no doubt that Olympic golf is comfortably the biggest grow-the-game opportunity that exists…”

In Australia, our Government provides targeted Olympic funding according to a sport’s chances of medalling at the Games. After a review in 2013, it forecast one silver medal and increased Golf Australia’s funding by AU $250,000 (US $190,000). Wow, right?

Dawson also said:

“It’s been made very clear to us by the International Olympic Committee that if golf is to be in the Olympics then it has to be for the top players in the world. Golf will not get into the Olympics if it’s to be for amateurs. That’s been made clear to us many times.”

Fair enough. The IOC is a business too and they want more eyes on their event. Amateur sports certainly don’t achieve that. So with 60 million golfers in over 110 countries (as there were in 2008), the IOC would have looked at all the applicants, golf, karate, squash, roller sports, baseball, softball and rugby sevens, and thought golf’s fan base gave it an advantage.

When the IGF submitted its presentation to the IOC in November 2008, the executive director of the OGC, Ty Votaw, said,

“We felt it was critically important to show that many of the game’s biggest stars are saying supportive and positive things about golf’s bid for the Olympics.”

Part of the presentation was a video, with statements of support from many of the top golfers of the time, including, Tiger Woods, Lorena Ochoa, Vijay Singh, Annika Sorenstam, Phil Mickelson, Suzann Petterssen, Ernie Els, Paula Creamer, Sergio Garcia, Karrie Webb, Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and Mike Weir…

Clearly eight years is a looooooong time in golf.

In October 2009, at the 121st IOC Session in Copenhagen, Dawson and Votaw rocked-up again for a final presentation before the vote to include golf in the Games, this time bringing professional ambassadors, Padraig Harrington, Michelle Wie, Suzann Pettersen and Matteo Manassero (then the British Amateur champion). Rio de Janeiro was also voted the 2016 host city at the same Session. Afterwards, Dawson said,

“We are extremely grateful that Padraig, Michelle, Suzann and Matteo were able to join us to help communicate the genuine interest world-class players of all ages share in golf becoming an Olympic sport.”

Fast forward to August 2016, which interestingly is Winter in Brazil, and we find hindsight to be its usual wonderful self. Five of the top ten world ranked male golfers are not going to the Olympics, plus numerous others in the top 50. Most cited the health concerns of the Zika virus, but Adam Scott was the most honest, saying the Olympics were, “not a priority” for him and that the format produces a weak field.

Naturally enough, given how important top professionals are to the IOC, they have promised to, “take into account,” the absence of the best players in golf. Peter Dawson, given all the effort and cost the IGF put into put into getting golf back into the Olympics, claimed the players were, “over-reacting” to Zika.

Behind the scenes, the IGF are probably privately cursing the IOC for selecting on of the most dangerous cities in the world as the Games’ host. The Zika virus and the closeness of Olympic competition to multiple Majors can be put down to bad luck. However, since golf will remain in the Games until at least 2020, in the relative safety of Tokyo, they’ll be doing some heavy player lobbying between now and then to ensure every single qualified player turns up.

A storyline to follow for sure, but what interests me is the validity of Dawson’s assertion that the Olympics are the, “…biggest grow the game opportunity that exists…”?

Such a statement is based on the politically motivated and anecdotal notion that watching elite sport will inspire non-participants to become participants and is known as the “demonstration effect.”

I live in Sydney. Our politicians promised participation in sport would grow as a result of hosting the 2000 Olympics. Nobody argued. It’s an intuitive, and hopeful, promise of a beneficial outcome for the investment. However, looking back through history and applying a little common sense mixed with guesswork, if the increase in popularity of race walking or diving is any guide since they became Olympic sports in 1904, then the Games are not going to be a panacea for golf’s perceived participation problems.

When Dawson made his assurance in 2008, there was no real evidence to suggest suggest a demonstration effect existed for Olympic sport, but neither was there any real evidence to suggest one didn’t exist. A proper study had not been undertaken.

In January 2015, a research paper was published which collated research from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics through to the 2012 London Olympics. Feel free to check it out, but I’ve read all 31 spine-tinglingly fascinating pages, so to save you a bit of time…

1) There is no evidence for an inherent demonstration effect, meaning there’s no, “if they watch it, they will come,” effect happening. Non-participants do not become participants just because they saw a sport at the Games. Sport at the elite level can appear out of reach to normal people.

2) There is evidence that a leveraged demonstration effect, meaning that the Games combined with programs encouraging participation, can increase player numbers. However, they are still not new participants. They are people who were:
a) already taking part in the sport and have increased their participation frequency
b) taking part in one sport, but switched to another
c) lapsed players who return to the sport

Another interesting finding in the paper is a “local” effect, meaning that the demonstration effect needs some sort of local relevance to work. In plain English, an athlete from your country needs to do something remarkable, like winning a medal in that sport, or the Olympics need to be held in your country (and effective local growth programs need to be implemented), for you to be potentially inspired to modify your existing participation. Remembering again, the Games do not encourage significant increases in new participants. New weightlifters don’t take up the sport en masse just because a national hero wins a gold medal. We feel a sense of pride and after the anthem is over, we go about our business.

Unfortunately, Peter Dawson and the IGF were wrong to assume the Games are a “grow the game” opportunity. I know looking back is easy and I totally get that Dawson wanted golf in the Olympics to increase build awareness. However, should anyone have a passing interest in golf, they can find a broadcast almost any day of the year. Most people are aware of golf, but just aren’t interested in it enough to play.

Given the choice between golf and something like the 100m finals in athletics, watching history-making runs by the fastest men and women in the world, my guess is people would tend to choose the athletics. I know I would, and I really love golf.

We can see golf at the highest level every year at Augusta National, or any course on the US Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship rotations. Not to mention The Players, The Ryder and President’s Cups. Olympic golf is not its highest level.

In ping pong, the greatest accomplishment is becoming an Olympic gold medallist. The agony and ecstasy of defeat or victory is real for athletes who only get a chance every four years.

In addition to golf, football (soccer), tennis and basketball appear somewhat as sideshow events in the Games. Gold medals are not the main reason for athletes to play those sports. Sure, medals are nice, but they really want a Green Jacket, a World Cup, a Wimbledon trophy or an NBA Championship ring. Spectators and viewers understand it’s not the pinnacle, so will be more likely to watch Olympic events where the emotional stakes are higher.

I admit that example is not applicable to women’s golf. Female participation in golf is below 20% and the women’s tours fight for visibility in a largely male dominated sport. As a result very few women golfers have dropped out of the Olympics (only one in fact), hoping that a medal will increase the sport’s and their own profiles. It may do so for the medallists. The issue, again, for those women motivated enough to try the sport, is golf has numerous roadblocks for the aspiring player, not the least of which are the predominantly male culture and intolerance for beginners.

Golf could go a long way to repairing it’s gulf in diversity by following the tennis model. Deep breath… it is actually okay to copy other sports if there is a positive net gain to be made. The staging of men’s and women’s competitions as part of the same tournament, with equal prize money, would demonstrate categorically that women are just as important to golf as men. One thing that is cool about the Olympic golf event is its equality. The men and women are playing at the same event, on the same course, and the rewards are the same. More of that in other golf tournaments, please!

So what could Peter Dawson, the IGF and its member organisations do, instead of chasing the Olympic (pipe) dream? I mean moving the IGF to Switzerland… really?

I have previously made a case for development programs in schools, and believe that the the tens of millions of dollars spent on the Olympic effort would be better redirected to creating and delivering sustained participation outcomes through junior golf. For those of us that feel it, sport is in our blood and in most cases we were exposed to the sports we love at a young age.

In Australia, Australian football has become an exemplar because its governing body, the AFL, invested in, developed and implemented junior programs in schools. When those kids graduate, they become adult participants and paying fans for the rest of their lives. The AFL has had growth in revenue and in participation for kids, men and women, every year for over a decade.

Attempting to grow participation in non-golfing Millennials or women is hard. Adults have their own well-developed friendship and activity networks, so instilling a desire to switch sports usually means convincing multiple people. Golf’s time commitment and learning curve don’t help. Kids on the other hand, don’t have a sense of “no time” or burden of adult responsibility, so can try many sports before choosing their preferred ones when they get older.

Golf needs to be part of that conversation more often. Not a sideshow to the distracting and expensive Olympic circus.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @connectgolf

jeremy_white_bio_pic@connectgolf in ‪#‎Golfchat‬, Jeremy is 80% dad, 20% golfing entrepreneur, who in the 90 minutes each day he has to himself, works as the #GolfChat Authors editor, works on a golfing Not-For-Profit, and tries to reverse the decline of his golf game with positive thoughts (no time for practice).

Back to #GolfChat Authors

Share This: