Does Golf Belong in the Olympics?

Tom Watson is Right That Golf is not an Olympic Event

After the initial thrill a couple years back of having golf included into the Olympic games, it took the self-proclaimed cranky old guy to set thing straight.


When asked about golf in the Olympics, Tom Watson said this:


“I don’t like to throw cold water on it but I don’t think it really ought to be in the Olympic games. We’ve got our most important championships. And then, y’know to me, I guess maybe adding one every four years is not that much more. But, I still kind of think Olympics is track and field and not golf to be honest with you. That’s the way I look at the Olympics. Throw swimming in there … [with] track and field. That’s the Olympics. All the other sports, they have their own tours.”


In the same press conference, Watson does joke about being the cranky old guy – but that doesn’t make him wrong. Let’s set aside the initial excitement of having Tiger and Rory et al fight it out for a gold medal. Is golf and Olympic sport? What really is an Olympic sport and the essence of what make the Olympics compelling.


Let’s ignore the Winter Olympics (which I love). The winter games are really an event comprising of : Canadians and Scandinavians feeling like they are world athletic powers; everyone rooting against Russians like the good old days of the Cold War; and Americans getting to cheer like they are underdogs even thought they really aren’t. Perfect.


The Summer Olympics are really an event for the entire world. Everyone has a summer. Hell, based on last year, I’m not sure even the populated parts of North America have winter anymore.


A close look at what makes the Olympics the Olympics and what make golf great reveals that golf doesn’t really belong. Don't panic. It’s fine and deep down, don't we all know it. It’s not a judgment on golf's value or virtue. We should know by now that the Intenational Olympic Committee and virtue don't really chum around together. Anyway, a lot of great thing don’t belong in the Olympics, like sex, driving a convertible up the Pacific Cost, eating hot turkey stuffing and the Victoria’s Secret runway show.


To be certain, let's explore what makes an Olympic sport.


First, it is important to be able to categorize the current Olympic sports. We made this handy Olympic Sports Venn Diagram (OSVD) as an aid.


The Summer Olympics Explained: Does Golf Fit in for the Future? [click to zoom]
The Summer Olympics Explained: Does Golf Fit in for the Future? [click to zoom]

Although I guess well all know deep down what an Olympic Games Venn diagram really looks like.


The OSVD includes every current Olympic sport or event so let’s consider the categories.


It turns out the Olympic sports are remarkably easy to categorize. A sport needs to be within two categories to be a worth being an ongoing Olympic sport. There are two exceptions to this rule. First, if you are a purely athletic sport with aa purely objective way or determining the gold medalist, you are in, i.e. track and field. Otherwise, a sport with only one category needs to fit in under the Repechage Rule described below.


It is best to understand the categories by putting each sport in their primary category.


Pure Athletics

Track and Field - Swimming- Wrestling (Greco Roman and Freestyle)- Boxing - Judo & Taekwondo (oddly, it doesn’t feel like Asians dominate this) - Weightlifting


These are sports in which the essence of the competition is based on raw athleticism. The result is typically purely objective (timed or measured) and there is very little luck. Typically, someone who is generally considered among the best three in the world in that sport will win the gold medal. It is the purest form of sport. Now you may roll your eyes at the judged combat sports (which have a rich history in which the best athlete is robbed), but that is a criticism of the scoring and not the essence of the sport – which is direct physical combat between two individuals to determine a winner.


Rich White People Sports

Water Polo- Canoe/Kayak - Cycling - Horsies: Dressage, Eventing AND Jumping (!) - Archery - Fencing - Rowing - Sailing - Shooting - Triathlon - Tennis - Modern Pentathalon


Now, please don’t read RWPSs as a prejorative. It is simply a historical. These sports come from historically Caucasian countries and are still enjoyed (either as participants or fans) by a similar demographic (think horse events, sailing, triathlon and in the case of water polo, think the PAC 12). I admit I had to look up modern pentathalon which turns out to be a combination of RWPS and not even that modern. The vast number of RWPS is not surpriseing seeing that the Olympics (although Greek from a historical standpoint) really originated and has been governed out of its base in Switzerland. Yes, Switzerland.


So, while many of these sports inclusion in the Olympics historical and in turn, they can get the beenfit of the Repechage Rule if not that athletic. It also helps that the current president of the IOC Jacques Rogge competed in the Olympics in yachting.


A Version of Dancing with the Stars Sports

Synchronized Swimming - Regular Gymnastics - Rhythmic Gymnastics - Trampoline (yes … they have Trampoline)


This is cute outfits and great moves and it is likely NBC hoped one of these, aside from regular gymnastics, could become popular - a kind of summer equivalent to figure skating. No such luck so far.


While the IOC actually acknowledges competitive ballroom dancing, it seems unlikely to become an actual Olympic sport. The reality is that everything but regular gymnastics should be on its way out of the Olympics. The Repechage rule does not apply to trampolineor rhythmic gymnastics because they are using the Olympics to create acceptance and a new pinnacle. No dice.


Stay Relevant With Young Demographic Events

BMX - Mountain Biking - Triathlon - Beach Volleyball


Now to state the obvious, these sports at first seem to be RWPS created in southern California. This may be true but they are still young and they are each athletic enough to let us have a wait an see approach for now.


Keep Asia Interested Events

Diving - Badminton - Table Tennis


Like cars, overpriced leather purses and West Coast real estate, it is important for Olympic sports to consider the Asian markets. These get to stay and they benefit from the Repechage Rule if there is any doubt. Now certainly golf is already skirting at the edges of this category which could be plus on its side.


Team Sports

Volleyball - Basketball - Field Hockey - Futbol (Soccer) - Handball - Water Polo


Aside from the major professional sports of basketball and soccer, these team sports are athletic enough to not cause a lot of controversy. Basketball is an interesting situation because it really is the premier country vs. country event. A player would surely prefer a basketball gold medal over a world basketball championship medal. Notably, this is unlike soccer in which a player would surely prefer a World Cup medal over a gold medal. This is surely why they have sensibly made the men’s Olympic soccer a junior mostly age-limited event.


The Repechage Rule


Now just because you are only in one category and not atheltic, you have one last chance and that is what I call the Repechage Rule.


For anyone who has watched Olympic Rowing, we all know the repechage which allows a boat losing in a particular heat to get back in the competition. Essentially, a second chance. In the OSVD rules, the Repechage Rule applies if a gold medal in the Olympic games is the pinnacle of achievement of the particular sport. This would apply to sports like Table Tennis and Fencing, which are really single category OSVD events, but count as Olympic sports because a gold medal is the pinnacle of its particular sport.


However, tennis, soccer and baseball have the problem that the Olympics are nowhere near the most important event for their respective sport. They appropriately dumped baseball. Tennis (while exciting this year because of Andy Murray and the proximity to his loss in the Wimbledon finals made a great story) should be on its way out of the Olympic. It just feels like an exhibition. Soccer for women works because it is the pinnacle n women's soccer.


So Does Golf Belong?


Looking at the OSVD, golf fits somewhere either outside this universe altogether or solely within the Anachronistic Old White Guy Sports. It's not athletic enough and the Repechage Rule doesn't apply because of the rich and more important history of golf's Majors. Surely, 99% of golfers would rather win a green jacket, a US Open or a Claret Jug over a golf medal. It is arguable a player may even prefer the US Amateur over a gold medal.


Before anyone starts arguing about how athletic modern golfers are, I don't disagree. Tiger has proven that it can be very important to be extremely fit and athletic to be a great golfer. However, it is not a requirement. Consider the reality that the winners of golf's Majors in the past four years included Ernie Els (at age 42), Darren Clarke (happily smoking and drinking at 42), Phil Mickelson (remember that attempted jump for his first Masters?), three other shortish dumpy looking guys and Angel Cabrera (he smokes on the course!) It does raise the question that if you can smoke while performing your event, can it be an Olympic Sport? Keep in mind we are limiting this discussion to the summer events because, like golf, you can smoke and drink while curling … and curling must stay in the winter games.


The other issue is that a particular tournament does not necessarily identifying the finest athlete of that sport (or even of the top five in the world, the best that particular week). In golf, you can't peak every 4 years. Let’s look at last four years of Majors again. Only twice has a player in the top 5 in the World Ranking won (McIlroy ranked 3rd winning 2012 PGA and Mickelson ranked 3rd winning 20120 Master).


The average world ranking over this period of the Major winners is 46th. Can you imagine that in any other Olympic sport? Is it possible that Usain Bolt would have a bad day and a Guiness drinking chain smoking 42 year-old Irish sprinter ranked 111th in the world would have a magical day at the track? Maybe that could happen at the betting window of a horse track, but it should not be posssible in an Olympic sport.

Now, this is not to criticize golf as a sport. It is the randomness and the truly any-given Sunday aspect of golf, combined with the superior skill and talent, that makes golf so fantastic. It's what also makes it frustrating and compelling.


While luck plays a crucial and significant part of any sport, there is a little too much in the balance when it comes to golf. In the premier events of the Olympics, the gold medalist typically identifies the premier athlete of that event (or to the extent some luck is involved in the event, usually one of the top 5 people in that event). Consider some of the Olympics' premier events. 

    • The 100 meters (and 4x100 relay)
    • The Mile (really 1500 meters)
    • Marathon
    • 400 IM in swimming
    • 100 Freestyle swimming and relay
    • Team Gymnastics


The best people win these events not the 46th ranked person or team on average. It also makes the Olympic upsets so much more compelling and tragic. None of this would apply to golf.


Alternatively, we also love the person who wins the obscure event that an all around sports fan is only willing to watch every 4 years (see women’s soccer, beach volleyball or maybe wrestling a la Rulon Jones). That doesn't apply to golf because we watch golf all the time (and with these European Tour events in the fall, it literally is ALL the time).


Golf doesn’t fit into the Olympics for many of the reasons we love it. It is unpredictable. It is unfair. A shot can hand on the edge of a hill even though it usually rolls down. A shot can hit a tree and either bounce to freedom or jail. A player can choke. The weather can change. The rub of the green.


I’m sure I’ll watch Olympic golf with excitement and interest. But I suspect it will feel like an exhibition. Nothing can match the excitement of Sunday at The Masters, The Open Championship or the US Open because of the history and context of those events. The Olympics also have a history and context which make them exciting to watch. Alas, Golf doesn’t belong.


It turns out Tom Watson is right. And get off of his lawn!


Douglas Han