Golf, rugby seen among favorites
LONDON -- The prospect of Tiger Woods competing for an Olympic gold medal may be moving closer to becoming reality.
Golf, along with rugby sevens, look to be the favorites among the sports being considered Thursday for inclusion in the 2016 Summer Games by the International Olympic Committee.
The IOC executive board will select two sports from a proposed list of seven, which also includes baseball, softball, squash, karate and roller sports. The 15-member board will submit two sports for ratification in a vote of the full 106-member IOC assembly in Copenhagen in October.
"It will be a long and difficult discussion," IOC board member Gerhard Heiberg told The Associated Press. "I think there will be different opinions. We hope to be able to make a unanimous decision, but it will be hard to find a common denominator."
Leaders of the seven sports made presentations to the IOC board in June in Lausanne, Switzerland, and have continued to lobby extensively. A report by the IOC program commission detailing the attributes of each sport will be reviewed by the board on Thursday.
Several IOC members and officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because no decision has been announced, said golf and rugby have the strongest chance of making the cut. Softball has been pushing hard and could still be in the running.
Some executive board members said anything was possible.
"I read and heard that golf and rugby were the favorites, but I've heard some reservations as well," board member Denis Oswald said. "It's pretty open and difficult to predict."
The board will also rule on proposed changes for the 2012 London Olympics, including the addition of women's boxing, mixed doubles in tennis, 50-meter sprints in swimming, BMX freestyle events in cycling and a shortened format for modern pentathlon.
Golf was played at the 1900 Paris Olympics and 1904 St. Louis Games. The sport's backers say bringing the game back into the Olympics would help it grow worldwide, noting that in many countries only Olympic sports receive government funding.
One of the main issues has been whether golf's top multimillionaire players would compete in the Olympics, when they already have a full schedule of majors, tour events and international team competitions. Women's great Annika Sorenstam and European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie appeared before the IOC board in June to assure members that top players would consider the Olympics as important as a major.
Woods -- the biggest name of all -- appeared in a video backing golf's case. And, in his most definitive comments yet about the Olympics, Woods indicated Tuesday he would play if golf gets the nod from the IOC.
"If I'm not retired by then, yeah," Woods, who will be 40 in 2016, said on the eve of the PGA Championship. "I think that golf is a truly global sport and I think it should have been in the Olympics a while ago. If it does get in, I think it would be great for golf and some of the other small countries that are now emerging in golf."
Still, some IOC members are concerned whether Woods and other top players will actually play.
"Some people have reservations about golf," Oswald said. "We have no guarantees the best players would participate. Nothing is binding. On the other hand, golf is a very universal sport, there are good courses everywhere, and it's played by men and women."
Golf proposes a 72-hole stroke-play competition for men and women, with 60 players in each field. The world's top 15 players would qualify automatically, and all major professional tours would alter tournament schedules to avoid a clash with the Olympics.
Rugby, which was last played at the 1924 Olympics in the full 15-a-side format, hopes to return in the faster, short-format 7-a-side version for both men and women. Rugby's chances have also been linked to reported private support from IOC chief Jacque Rogge, a former player in his youth in Belgium.
Softball and baseball are seeking a return to the Olympics after being voted off the program four years ago for the 2012 London Games. Attempted reinstatements were rejected by the IOC in 2006, but the two are back again hoping to avoid strike three.
Baseball -- which has failed to bring top major league players to the Olympics -- is offering a shortened five-day, eight-team format intended to ensure the participation of some big-name stars. But that appears unlikely to sway the IOC to change its mind.
Softball, which rejected a proposal to combine its bid with baseball, has stressed its work in developing the sport among youth and women in the Middle East and Africa and in keeping free of doping scandals.
Weighing against baseball and softball is a reluctance among some IOC officials to accept the very sports which it rejected twice in recent years. On the other hand, the five other sports failed to win approval in 2005.
"We should treat baseball and softball equally with the five other sports," Oswald said. "They should have their chance. They should not be penalized."
International Softball Federation president Don Porter arrived in Berlin on Tuesday for a last-minute lobbying push.
"We want to have a presence and say, 'Hey softball's here.' We don't want them to forget us," Porter said. "We have a lot of kids all over the world who want to be in the Olympics and we want to bring that back to them. We can't give up."
Porter has also heard that golf and rugby are the favorites.
"We just hope it's still open and the decision hasn't already been made at this point," he said. "We've made a lot of changes and improvements. Hopefully, that's what they'll see."
Still undecided is how the two sports picked Thursday will be voted on in Copenhagen, one at a time or together as a package. It's possible some rank-and-file members may resist the recommendations, although IOC leaders insist the assembly had asked the board to make proposals.
"Hopefully they will trust us," Oswald said.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press