I don’t pretend to know how well or how badly the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are going to go. But I’m very excited to be flying to Brazil today to cover this week’s men’s golf event.
These Summer Games have been the most dreaded ever, and that’s saying something, given all the doom predicted for Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. So far, so good, but Rio still has two weeks to go, with plenty of reasons for uncertainty.
The least of the potential problems is how the golf will be received as it returns to the Games for the first time in 112 years. After the men’s and women’s competitions end, it might look out of place and appear irrelevant, in which case Tokyo in 2020 will be the sport’s last appearance in the Games.
Still, I’m betting golf will do fine and that these Olympics will be remembered fondly. The reason: Because they are the Olympics. In spite of all that’s wrong with the modern games—corruption, PED use, rampant commercialism, IOC permissiveness—somehow, the Olympics always end up worth it.
The unifying force of a global gathering intended to present people at their best is singularly powerful. There is no more vivid vehicle of the human spirit than sport. Whether participating or simply witnessing, the Olympics bring out our better natures. No other spectacle provides so much visual poetry. Think of the Spanish archer whose perfectly placed arrow lit the flame in Barcelona in 1992. Or Muhammad Ali raising the torch with a trembling right arm in Atlanta four years later.
Everyone understands that the rise in terrorism has made the biggest stages the most worrisome. This year’s organizers know the horror of Munich in 1972, could, with any failure of precaution, be multiplied many times. But the opening ceremonies in Rio were reassuring, with a charming self-awareness. Brazil is one of the world’s biggest generators of climate change, its legacy of slavery dwarfs that of the United States, and its divisions between the rich and poor are shamefully stark. All this was acknowledged in the staged storytelling. The honest tone allowed more appreciation for that which has always made Brazil so attractive—the music, culture, energy, diversity and sheer beauty. The opening guitar chords of “The Girl From Ipanema,” played by composer Antonio Carlos Jobim’s grandson, were magical.
I don’t expect the Olympic experience in Rio to be easy or convenient. The rampant street crime sadly makes it unwise to roam. But I’ll also admit that my excitement for going is founded in having been lucky enough to attend the 1968 Games in Mexico City, when I was 14. I stayed with my uncle, who obtained tickets for us nearly every day.
The run-up to those games was also filled with trepidation as demonstrating students were shot by police. But Mexico City, acutely aware like every Olympic city that the whole world was watching, drew closer. The spirit was both electric and warm.
I saw so much, most of it available (I realized as I began writing this) to relive on YouTube. There was Bob Beamon’s epic long jump. I was sitting close by the landing pit, and Beamon landed so close to the end that it seemed certain he had fouled. Instead, it was a record jump of 29 feet, 2½ inches that stood for nearly 23 years. The speed and grace of the winning American sprinters—Jim Hines in the 100 meters, Tommie Smith in the 200 and Lee Evans in the 400 (all of whom set world records in the high altitude)—is embedded in my memory. So is the somber intensity of Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand, each raising one black-gloved fist.
I also saw high jumper Dick Fosbury take the gold with the then-novel, now-standard “Fosbury Flop,” George Foreman win his gold medal in boxing, the Spencer Haywood-led U.S. basketball team dominate and dozens of other performances that defined athletic excellence.
I know being at those Olympics at such an impressionable age did something to me. I was already obsessed with sports, but witnessing excellence across so many disciplines seemed to give me a deeper curiosity for what it took. One of the people in golf I most admire, 96-year-old Sandy Tatum, was in the stadium in Berlin in 1936 when Jesse Owens won the long jump, one of his four gold medals in those Olympics. Tatum, who would become the NCAA individual champion in golf in 1942, said the inspiration of seeing Owens in that setting on his 16-year-old mind was life-changing.
Little doubt Usain Bolt, going for an unprecedented third straight gold medal in the 100 meters in Rio, will inspire youth. The hope is that Rio’s golfers, men and women, will do the same. If you care about golf, having it be part of the Olympics—even it strikes you (not unreasonably) as an awkward fit—is the smart play for spreading the game globally.
The 72-hole tournaments may not be highly attended at the new Olympic Course, and those present may not understand what they’re watching, but I believe the atmosphere will nonetheless be special. The participants will be hit with the satisfying realization that by virtue of representing their country in the ultimate gathering of sportsmen, an athletic credibility so long denied to golfers will be granted. It’s perhaps the main thing the top-ranked players who chose not to play in Rio will miss out on. I completely believe Jordan Spieth when he says choosing not to go to Rio was the hardest decision of his career, but at the same time, I hope he and the other stars who took a pass will regret not playing.
It will mean that the Olympics were the Olympics. And that golf not only fit in, but was raised up.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of Golf World.