Thursday, August 13, 2009

R&A and IRB vs. IOC

Honestly, people are going to have to stop doing things I want them to do, that's twice in one lifetime now... Then again, with the IOC Executive Board's decision to recommend that golf and rugby sevens join the Olympic programme in 2016 still needing to be ratified by the IOC congress in October in one of the most political arenas in world sports, it's worth taking this opportunity to restate the case for their inclusion.

With sevens the headline case is simple; nothing will make the main stadium, the great elephant on the back of all Olympic legacies, come alive once the athletics is over than a sevens tournament. The Rugby World Cup Sevens and the Commonwealth Games tournaments have been fiestas for the game and an Olympic tournament should be even more so; the increase in foreign visitors to the Games will I'm sure have been a major factor in the recommendation.

The effect on rugby in general will also be enormous. Sevens is already pushing the frontiers of the game outwards, with Argentina and Kenya having real medal chances for 2016 and places like Portugal showing genuine promise. The lure of Olympic places might also stem the damaging flow of talent from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to New Zealand, bringing those nations back to the fore at both seven and fifteen-a-side.

The real prize from Olympic sevens, however, is the USA. With American Football leaving increasing numbers of college players on the scrapheap, Olympic funding for sevens should give that talented athlete base an alternative avenue for their skills. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised to see the odd NFL player try for a place at the big show (the timing of the Games fits reasonably well, there's no lack of patriotism in the league and plenty of open-field running skills that should transfer nicely to sevens.)

Golf is a more difficult case and one where I fear the governing bodies may already have shot themselves in the foot somewhat. The fundamental criticism that an Olympic tournament won't be as important as the majors isn't unreasonable, at least on the men's side; as was the case with baseball and softball I suspect the women's title will be somewhat more relatively prestigious.

As much as anything, however, it's a problem of lack of imagination in the format. With golf and tennis, the Olympic tournament is only bigger than the four majors because of the gold medal at the end of it, but that doesn't matter so much so long as the tournament leading into it is of the same physical and competitive rigour. Unfortunately, the tournament the R&A and USGA are proposing isn't; three of this year's four majors had 156 competitors (the Masters had 96) but the Olympic tournament would have just 60. I suspect part of that will be down to concerns over the quality of the field; in individual sports countries are usually restricted to four entrants, something that will seriously affect the field in golf (where the USA has 19 of the world's top 60 and 64 of the top 156). I'd tell golf to instead embrace that limitation and allow the golfers of the world to compete against players they'd usually have no chance of sharing a course with; realistically, you're going to have a cut after two days and no-one will mind so long as the field after the cut is good enough. (The same is true of tennis, but I'll save that argument for the IOC congress...)

The headline case for golf is even more about the legacy aspect. Olympic host cities are by definition international cities, living on a diet of high finance and international commerce. Would any such city not benefit from a world-class facility for the business community's pastime par excellence? It may not be as cuddly as the regeneration-led legacy London are trying to push, but at least you can count on it.

As I say I'm sure I'll return to this topic as the IOC Congress approaches, but this a battle for sports lovers to start fighting now and right up until those delegates push the right buttons in Copenhagen.

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