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The Loop

Olympic golf and its international impact

August 13, 2009

At the sixth annual KPMG Golf Business Forum in May, there was plenty of gloom (the theme for the conference was "Navigating the Choppy Waters of the Economic Downturn"). But one bright prospect for the year was the possibility of golf becoming an Olympic sport for the 2016 Games. Delegates agreed that a favorable decision in the fall from the International Olympic Committee could have a massive catalytic effect.

Toward that end, the International Olympic Committee's executive board on Thursday proposed that golf and rugby sevens become Olympic sports. The Olympic Assembly will vote for ratification in October.

"I don't think we can comprehend what it would mean to the game," Arnold Palmer, said the Golf Business Forum. "From any angle, what it will bring to business, and the wider public interest it will create, it is almost mind-boggling what the impact would be."

An Olympic golf event, PGA Tour Ty Votaw said in May, would significantly raise the profile of the game. "Having our sport on that stage every four years, taking it into the hearts and minds of people around the world in a way that hasn't happened before, is huge," he said.

There would be greater media coverage worldwide, and the chance for homegrown Olympic golf stars to spark an interest in their respective countries. But perhaps the biggest impact would be hard cash. "In many countries, the way sport gets funded and developed is dependent on whether they're Olympic sports," Votaw said. "One of the things we know in talking to the 119 national golf federations that belong to the IGF is that, in general, they don't get funding from their governments."

The change would be especially pronounced in countries where golf is emerging. Zhang Xiaoning, the head of the China Golf Association, claims that golf would attract significantly more central government funding in China if it were an Olympic sport. "The future is totally different if the sport gains the support of the whole nation," he said at a press conference in late April.

But each nation is different; government money for sport is not always a priority among politicians. Manuel De La Rosa, president of the Colombian Golf Federation, supports the push for Olympic golf because of its potential effects in other countries, but he is not optimistic about its influence at home. "I do not believe it will have a very huge impact for the game in Colombia," he said by e-mail. "We have many sports in Colombia that are in the Olympic Games and that has not made them receive special financial support or made a substantial difference. The problem is that there is no awareness of the importance of sports as an educational aide, as a tool to get kids away from all the dangers that surround them and as a very efficient vehicle to construct values in our society."

In America, Votaw said, "there may be some cynicism about the effect of the Olympics on golf. But in other countries, any Olympic achievement is the pinnacle. If Lorena Ochoa or K. J. Choi win a gold medal, it would mean more in those countries than if they won a major championship. In the short term, golf in the Olympics isn't going to help golf-developed countries to a great degree. But we do see this accruing significant benefit to us, to the PGA Tour, over time."

-- John Barton