Challenge for Olympic golf? Finding more medals

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — With Olympic golf qualifying starting next month, the sport assured a spot in the next two Olympics (and likely 2028 as well), and the U.S. Open happening at Shinnecock Hills this week, International Golf Federation executive director Antony Scanlon sat down to discuss the second modern edition of Olympic golf in 2020 and what officials hope(d) would be different than in Rio …

OlympicTalk: Take me through the process of deciding to keep the Olympic golf format unchanged from 2016 to 2020. Were there any changes floated around?

Scanlon: Three weeks after the Olympics, all of us got together at Hazeltine, at the Ryder Cup, and said all bets are off. Let’s look at everything. The first thing we looked at was are there any other opportunities for more Olympic medals? We looked at opportunities with team events and mixed team events, etc. Once you got down to the realities of trying to condense that into 16 days of Olympic competition, you’re pretty much constricted to a 72-hole stroke play for men and the ladies. To get the players buying on that, they liked the four rounds of stroke play to determine who the best champion was. They didn’t want to come up with some sort of tricky event just before that would affect their own individual events. We had great ideas, went to different players with it, especially those that had been to the Olympics, get their feedback. They said, stick with what we’ve got.

OlympicTalk: The IOC might have been pretty open to a mixed team event because they’ve been adding mixed-gender events in other sports to the Olympics.

Scanlon: They certainly would have supported it if we could have fit it into those 16 days, but as it is, it’s a lot of golf for the players when you add that plus a full, 72-hole stroke-play event, and then following that a Ryder Cup, etc., toward the end of the season it starts to become too much golf for the players. And we thought it was best to capitalize on the success of what we had in Rio, really, and take it from there.

OlympicTalk: Tim Finchem said shortly after Rio that he wanted to “tweak the format” of Olympic golf. Was a team event or mixed-gender event what he was talking about?

Scanlon: Yeah. That’s pretty much around the time we were all meeting and talking about it. That was the challenge we put ourselves, and we still actually have that challenge. And that is to look for ways for us to have more opportunities for medals for the athletes. That surge will continue beyond Tokyo and through to Paris. If we can come up with preserving the 72-hole stroke play, which the players really support, to some other event. One suggestion, and this would mean the IOC having to really rethink their policies, is similar to the men’s World Cup [of Golf], where you used to have a team event in addition to an individual event.

Editor’s Note: In this scenario, golfers would not play multiple tournaments at the Olympics. Rather, their scores from the individual event would also count toward a team event. This was the 2013 World Cup of Golf’s format.

But the IOC currently doesn’t loop two events into one. Well, there is with gymnastics [qualifying scores count for advancement into team and individual finals]. There is with equestrian, but they’re trying not to do that. But who knows? The IOC is also evolving. They’re talking about esports now. This [scores counting for individual and team events] could be one way. That is one avenue we would explore for Paris [2024], see if that’s possible.

OlympicTalk: What about the makeup of the fields? Did you look at trying to ask the IOC for more spots in each field, or changing qualifying to let more golfers in from the top countries like the U.S. and England?

Editor’s Note: The U.S. has five of the top nine golfers in the men’s world ranking. South Korea has six of the top 13 women. A country can’t qualify more than four golfers into either Olympic men’s or women’s tournament.

Scanlon: The Olympics is about participation as well as winning medals. I really think that in Rio we got the balance between diversity of field and strength of field really well. As it is, the IOC allows us to have four per country as a maximum, where normally it would be three. So we have an exception there, similar to tennis. So if we go back to Rio, we had a total of 41 countries out of 120 athletes that we had in both the men’s and women’s fields. That’s pretty diverse, and it was a strong field. If you start to trick it up and reduce the number of countries that are participating, I think it takes something away. And one of the reasons why we’re part of the Olympic program is to widen our engagement of our sport to a bigger audience, and that was shown in Rio.

We’d love more athletes, but the reality with the IOC is no. We have stick with the 60 that we have with men and women.

OlympicTalk: Did you ask the IOC if you could have more athletes?

Scanlon: We actually did that before even Rio. We were looking for a field of, I think, 85, and they made a blanket rule of keeping the numbers the way they are [for 2020]. And I can see why because after our request, they admitted five extra sports through the [Tokyo 2020] organizing committee, which added extra athletes. I can see why they capped us.

OlympicTalk: What about adding Paralympic golf?

Scanlon: We’re bidding for Paris, an opportunity to have lower-limb amputees participate. We had some very good meetings with the [International Paralympic Committee] and have great support from all of our national federations and IGF membership for that. Our bid goes in, I think, the ninth of July, and, hopefully, come January next year we’ll get some positive news on that.

OlympicTalk: What are your thoughts on turnout from the top golfers after so many skipped Rio?

Scanlon: We’re constantly talking throughout with player liaisons and directly to the agents and the players. The players that weren’t there in Rio, and the reasons for it, I think some of them now regret that. I think Tokyo is a different landscape. It’s in the second-largest golf nation in the world. I think there’s great opportunity for the profile of our athletes to take that opportunity of being in Tokyo with that audience. I don’t see anything prohibiting any of the players coming this time.

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Anne Donovan, a Hall of Fame basketball player and Olympic gold medalist, has died of heart failure at age 56.

Donovan coached the Storm to a 2004 WNBA title.

“While it is extremely difficult to express how devastating it is to lose Anne, our family remains so very grateful to have been blessed with such a wonderful human being,” Donovan’s family said in a statement, according to reports. “Anne touched many lives as a daughter, sister, aunt, friend and coach.

Donovan, a 6-foot-8 center, made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team (as its youngest player after her freshman year at Old Dominion) that ended up missing the Moscow Games due to the U.S. boycott.

She then earned gold with the U.S. in 1984 and 1988, being the oldest player on the latter team at 26. She was inducted as a player into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995 and into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

Donovan later was an assistant coach for the 2004 Olympic champion team and head coach for the 2008 Beijing team that took gold. She also was the first female head coach of a WNBA champion team with the Storm in 2004.

“USA Basketball mourns the passing of Anne Donovan,” USA Basketball said in a statement. “She played for her first USA Basketball team in 1977 and during her Hall of Fame, 31-year USA career, she was a member of five U.S. Olympic teams and four USA World Championship teams as an athlete and coach, culminating in leading the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team to gold as our head coach in Beijing. She used to say she bled red, white and blue. As much as we remember her accomplishments in the game, we mourn a great friend who will be greatly missed.”

Greg Rutherford, who earned long jump gold as part of Great Britain’s “Super Saturday” at the London Olympics but has struggled with injuries in his early 30s, will retire after this season.

“At times I am in so much pain I can’t even sit on the floor and play with my two kids,” Rutherford said, according to the Guardian, noting he has had five ankle surgeries, plus procedures on his foot, groin and stomach. “I still feel I am fast. I still feel as if I am super strong. But whenever I try to sprint or jump I have to take three days off because I am limping so much. In the end it wears you down.

“I keep asking myself, what’s more important to me – trying to be a mediocre athlete holding on to past glories or moving on?”

Rutherford, a 31-year-old known for his ginger-red hair and clutch performances at major championships, said he will compete at the European Championships in August, then conclude his career at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain.

“I’ve achieved so much but retirement comes early to those of us for whom sport is a livelihood,” was posted on Rutherford’s Instagram. “It only feels like yesterday I was winning my first major medal but now 12 years on, I sit here as the greatest long jumper Great Britain has ever had, one of the most successful in European history and someone ready to hang the spikes up for good.”

On Aug. 4, 2012, Rutherford earned long jump gold less than 10 minutes after countrywoman Jessica Ennis won the heptathlon and less than an hour before Mo Farah prevailed in the 10,000m. Ennis retired after taking silver at the Rio Games. Farah switched to marathons after last season.

Rutherford became the second British man to earn an Olympic long jump title after Lynn Davies in 1964.

He entered the Games as a medal favorite with the joint-farthest jump in the world that season. His winning jump in London, 8.31 meters (27 feet, 3 1/4 inches), was the shortest Olympic gold-medal distance since 1972.

Carl Lewis, a four-time Olympic long jump champion, criticized Rutherford’s generation of long jumpers (Rutherford was coached by Dan Pfaff, who worked with Lewis, and improved significantly in 2012 after changing his takeoff technique to mirror the U.S. legend.)

“[World-record holder] Mike [Powell] and me were jumping 28 feet regularly,” Lewis said in March 2016. “But this generation? Rutherford? I’m sorry, but it’s pathetic to me. He’s won everything. Are you kidding me? He’s doing his best. He’s jumping great. But he shouldn’t be winning with that.”

Rutherford went on to win his next three major championships — the 2014 Commonwealth Games, 2014 Europeans and 2015 Worlds — and then took bronze in Rio (behind U.S. gold medalist Jeff Henderson).

“I’m the Olympic, World, Commonwealth and European champion now,” Rutherford said at the 2015 Worlds. “I’m hoping that’s enough for people to accept I am a half-decent British athlete.”

In 2016, Rutherford said he was risking the hearing in his left ear for the rest of his life by continuing to jump. He developed cochlear hydrops, a rare ear disorder that left him partially deaf, after sustaining whiplash in competition.

“If the room falls silent all I hear is loud white noise, so it’s been a struggle to sleep,” Rutherford said then.

He missed the 2017 Worlds at the London Olympic Stadium with ankle ligament damage and a sports hernia. He has competed in four outdoor meets since Rio, none of them at the top international level.

Rutherford’s personal-best jump of 8.51 meters ranks him joint 23rd all time and sixth among European jumpers.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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I’m incredibly proud of my career. I’ve achieved so much but retirement comes early to those of us for whom sport is a livelihood. It only feels like yesterday I was winning my first major medal but now 12 years on, I sit here as the greatest long jumper Great Britain has ever had, one of the most successful in European history and someone ready to hang the spikes up for good. • I want to thank everyone who’s had a positive impact on my career (but I’d struggle to name everyone here) Most importantly, the greatest coach I could have ever wished for – @danpfaff. My full potential would never have been reached and that Olympic gold medal would never have been won, if it wasn’t for his guidance and input. • I’m going to go for the European Championships one final time. And then I’ll also be jumping in Birmingham and London for the Diamond Leagues. If you fancy coming to watch me compete one last time then please do come on down and give me a wave. It’d be so great to finish with some roaring crowds. • Thank you for all your love and support over the years. It’s been a blast & your kind comments have always given me a push in the right direction. • Grab the @guardian tomorrow to see my exclusive interview with Sean Ingle; we go in to my decision/future plans in further detail there. • @susiejverrill @andrewsteele @aurumsportsgroup @drgerryramogida @andyjburkeuk @melvintann27 @nike … Thank you so much for you help.

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