Coming into the 31st Olympiad, glamorous headlines abounded: the return of a changed Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt’s quest for immortality, the United States gymnastics team’s dominating spirit. The promise of excellence in all forms, from the basketball court to the ping pong table, enthralled millions around the globe. But perhaps lost among the pomp and circumstance that characterize the Games was the return of golf after a 104 year hiatus.
While the game of golf is world renowned (its stars are some of the most recognizable athletes in competitive sport), its quiet return to the Olympics was not without good reason.
Many argued that golf simply didn’t need to return to the Olympic spotlight. Its majors and PGA tour events take place all over the globe and promise substantial monetary winnings to many of the top finishers. It also already has its own international competition, the Ryder Cup, whose format has proved to be an exciting and patriotic outlet for the sport. Why then, would its leaders and ambassadors push so hard for this stage, a stage that on the surface could offer the piteously abstract promise of national achievement and the ability to call oneself an Olympian?
And why this specific venue, whose many turbulent factors almost certainly guaranteed a nightmarish outcome for the game and its participants? Questions over corruption in choosing the new Olympic course’s location, the delays in construction and environmental implications of its existence led many to think that a venue would not even be available for these Rio Games. Pundits scoffed at the course’s supposed ease of play. Others claimed that the surface hadn’t had enough time to mature and questioned whether it would be a fair test for the athletes.
Then factor in the tepid reactions by the game’s brightest stars. The top five ranked golfers in the world chose to sit out the event citing the concerns over the Zika virus, safety risks and other health-related terms. Skeptics argue that these wealthy and popular athletes simply don’t see the importance in such an event, an idea echoed by the fourth ranked golfer in the sport.
When Rory Mcllroy, one of the game’s most recognizable young faces, was asked which sports he would be watching, he responded with a refreshing dose of brutal honesty: “I’m not sure golf will be one of the events I watch … Probably events like track and field, swimming, diving … the stuff that matters.”
With all these factors and practically fate itself working to derail golf’s Olympic return, it was most certainly a massive disappointment, a gigantic blow to a sport that has worked hard to make itself more accessible to a wider demographic in hopes of staving off the decline in participation that it has seen over the past decade. Right?
In fact, it was just the opposite. Not only was it finished in time, the golf course was praised by golfers and analysts alike for its unique challenges and call for the athlete’s creativity. Scores were low, but did not surpass those at this past year’s Masters, located at arguably the greatest golf course in the world, Augusta National Golf Club. And though maybe the top golfers in terms of ranking were not present, superb golf was still evident, as the battle for gold came down to a breathtaking duel between two champions, this year’s British Open winner Henrik Stenson and 2013’s U.S. Open victor, Justin Rose. In the end though, it was Rose who knocked a 38-yard pitch just 2 feet from the hole to clinch the gold on the final hole of the tournament. It was a classic ending that a successful tournament so deserved.
But I think, more than anything else, the success of golf at this year’s Olympics proves that sometimes it is easy to forget just how extraordinary the Olympics really are. For these 17 days, conventional international politics are replaced with a different set of relations, those governed simply by the rules of sport. Rivalries heat up and inspire athletes to rise and achieve their very best, but exist only in the frame of their sport: left in the pool, on the track, on the court.
In this utopian existence, the individual is unfettered from the conventional worries, barriers or norms that may stand in their way. For in the Olympics, the only criterion for success is human excellence in any of its many forms, an idea so pure that it carries with it a euphoria and magic that is tangible to all those who get to experience its fleeting powers.
Just look at the reaction of Justin Rose, the Olympic champion, whose violent fist bump and guttural roar revealed how powerful the Olympic ideal and sense of patriotic duty can be. See the United States’ Matt Kuchar, whose third place finish caused him to well up in a post-round interview.
“I can assure you I’ve never been so excited to finish top three in my life,” Kuchar told the Golf Channel, “I realize it’s third, but I’ve never felt this sort of pride bursting out of my chest before.”
Even those who did not end up on the medal podium were still smitten by Olympic fervor. Bubba Watson relished the opportunity to shed the often isolative nature of his sport to become part of his first Olympic team, calling it “the greatest sporting event I’ve ever been a part of.” Historically, Watson’s interpretation of faith has caused him to come in conflict with the LGBT community. Putting the conflicts of his faith aside, he’s now called meeting the most celebrated openly gay athlete in American history, Greg Louganis, the favorite part of his trip. Watson even went so far as to call the guy a legend.
Maybe this is why we’re so attracted to the Olympics. Yes, there are few better ways to fill a lazy summer afternoon than with some live whitewater kayaking action or badminton doubles matches. And where else will men’s omnium, even just for a few minutes, take center stage in the world of sport.
But I think above all else, as the exterior world becomes more and more contentious by the year, the Olympic Games prove that humanity is still capable of prevailing against even the steepest of physical barriers, of producing inspiring performances, and, most importantly, of, even just for these 17 days, putting our differences aside in the pursuit of the most noble of all human pursuits: that of unimaginable brilliance. And though Rory Mcllroy may think otherwise, nothing matters quite as much as that.