by John “The Original 228” Furgele
It happens weekly. Each week, we read of a high profile male golfer choosing to skip the 2016 Olympics in Rio over concerns about the Zika virus. The concerns are genuine as nobody wants to expose himself or herself to the Zika virus if they don’t have to. But some of these golfers might go for a hike, a run in the woods thereby exposing themselves to Lyme disease. Yet, they probably don’t stop taking to the woods when they can.
And, if one has noticed, not one female golfer has withdrawn over fear of Zika. For golfers, the Olympics will never define a golfer’s legacy. In golf, there are four majors and most sports followers can name them: the Masters, The U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Open Championship, aka the British Open. For Dustin Johnson, Rory McIllroy, and Justin Spieth, they will be judged on how many majors they win, not if they win Olympic gold in 2016, 2020 or beyond. If the Olympics meant more, they would all be there. But, simply, they don’t. If you ask Jason Day if he prefers Olympic gold or a PGA Championship, he won’t even let you finish your sentence before saying “PGA.”
Money is another factor. Nobody is getting $1.8 million for winning the Olympics and even LPGA golfer Stacy Lewis says money is a factor for so many men withdrawing. For a female golfer, winning an Olympic gold medal could pay dividends, particularly if the Golden girl is American. She could be marketed as “Gold medal golfer Michelle Wie or Stacy Lewis or recently crowned U.S. Open champion Brittany Lang.” There is little more skin in the game for the gals then there is for well-compensated men. The males have the exposure, the sponsorship and the endorsement potential.
All this said, to me, golf is tough sell in the Olympics. No mater how you slice it, the Olympics will never be the big event in golf. In golf, it’s one of the four. Same goes for tennis. Andy Murray won Olympic gold at the 2012 London games, but before reading this, did you remember that he had won? I can see playing basketball in the Olympics and other team sports because it is world versus world; country versus country. Of course, LeBron James would prefer NBA titles to Olympic titles, but that’s okay. Playing on a team—for your country—evokes different emotions in the American people. In 1980, 75 percent of the country knew nothing about hockey, but when USA played (and beat) USSR, they both noticed and cared.
For sports like track and field, the Olympics are the premier event. The athletes—male and female—have to go there. For swimmers, it’s the same. The Olympics made Bruce Jenner, Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps and Carl Lewis household names. In addition, the Olympics made them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Golfers and tennis players don’t need the Olympics. Kudos to Serena Williams for trumpeting the prestige and importance of representing your country in the Olympics, but deep down, we all know that she would choose another Wimbledon title over another Gold medal.
While the mainstream media outlets continue to focus on the Zika threat, we would do best to focus our attention on the sports that matter most in the Olympics. This includes, gymnastics, track and field, swimming, basketball, and the rest. As for golf, if you’re a golf fan, you’ll watch. If you’re not, you won’t. That’s the difference. The non-swimming fan watches swimming at the Olympics; the non-track and field fan watches track and field at the Olympics. Once every four years, those sports capture our attention; from 2017-2019, they won’t. Life isn’t always fair, but life is life.
When the Olympics isn’t the major event in a particularly sport, you can’t really blame the athletes for choosing rest over play. Moreover, the financial incentive isn’t there for Olympic golf. Believe me, if Gold medal prize money was $2 million, all the key players would be there. Money talks, and in this case, Gold, Silver and Bronze walk. Jason Day seems like a great guy. Who wasn’t touched when his little boy ran to him when he won the PGA Championship last year? Same for Dustin Johnson. He is a father and he won the U.S. Open on Father’s Day. Is there a better trophy to hoist than your toddler son? Because these golfers have limited time to earn their millions, they will follow the money and they will follow it every single time. If the Olympics offered a huge financial prize, I’m sure Paulina Gretzky would push Dustin Johnson to Rio. The same would go for Day’s wife and many others. As for bachelors like Spieth and McIllroy, they’d prefer some down time with their mates, probably some partying and living the good life before gearing up for the fall season. But, $2 million? Yes, they would being going for the Gold. Gold and $2 million? Nice. Just Gold? Not so nice.
For golfers like Spieth, Day, Johnson and McIllroy, they will enjoy their Olympic break on their yachts, vacation homes and private jets. They won’t miss the Olympics and we won’t miss them either.