Did the IOC make the right call?

Originally Published: August 13, 2009
ESPN.com

On Thursday, the International Olympic Committee executive board recommended that golf and rugby be added to the 2016 Olympic rotation, rejecting softball, baseball, roller sports, karate and squash.

So, did the IOC make the right decision? ESPN.com's Bob Harig and Graham Hays debate the choice:

FROM: Graham Hays More

TO: Bob Harig

The International Olympic Committee had a chance to right a recent wrong and instead opted to right a mistake it might have made more than a century ago. Softball is likely not coming back for the 2016 Olympics after being passed over in favor of rugby and golf, the latter of which was last contested in 1904. (A final IOC vote comes in October.)

I don't have a problem with golf's inclusion; it's a great international sport, and watching Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington battle for Olympic gold certainly sounds compelling enough. But that image also is a big reason the IOC's decision baffles me. We already get Woods against Harrington, and Lorena Ochoa against Morgan Pressel, on grand sporting stages at major tournaments. Adding golf to the Olympics just dilutes the Olympic brand. Just look at tennis -- the pros competing in Beijing didn't generate nearly as much buzz as they did competing at Wimbledon a few weeks earlier.

Softball is not a stagnant sport. It's growing in popularity in this country, and by leaps and bounds in participation in other countries. And the Olympics were the sport's signature event. To pass it over in favor of the leftovers from Augusta and the U.S. Open just makes no sense.

Bob, do you think the PGA Tour's best players are going to hold the Olympics in the same regard as they do the four majors?

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Graham Hays

Graham, you're right -- a gold medal will never mean as much as a green jacket or Claret Jug. You just cannot replace decades of major championship history like that. That is one of the strong reasons against golf's Olympic inclusion. For a softball player, a gold medal would mean everything; for a golfer, not so much. But golf's leaders are looking beyond that. They see this as a way to grow the game in places that do not produce a lot of golfers. We're obviously talking years into the future. I imagine the softball officials see it the same way for their sport.

FROM: Graham Hays More

TO: Bob Harig

That's absolutely true for softball. As painful as it was for the Americans, especially now that the current generation of players won't get a shot at redemption, Japan's gold in the 2008 Olympics was a good moment for the sport. The first step for softball was erasing the stigma that the Olympic tournament was a glorified victory lap for Team USA, and Japan showed years of development could pay off on that stage. With Australia and Canada producing consistently good talent, the sport had a good foundation, and it's difficult to argue that the exposure that began at the 1996 Atlanta Games did not serve as a primary catalyst for that.

Where this truly hurts softball is in taking the next step, which, as you suggest for golf, is about growing the sport in new places. Just since last year, the International Softball Federation has helped start national programs in Jordan and Sierra Leone. How much of that marketing was geared toward the IOC is debatable, but it's representative of a larger point. We're just barely at a point where women's team sports are gaining cultural acceptance in North America, Europe and Asia, even compared to women's individual sports like golf. Nothing provides a stage like the Olympics. Softball fans watch the world championships. The entire world watches the Olympics.

You mentioned some of golf's objectives in participating in the Olympics, but on the other side, I'm curious how much you think the Tiger Woods factor played a role in the IOC's decision.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Graham Hays

That's a good question. In the past, he was noncommittal. When asked about it, Tiger's typical response was something along the lines of, "I just hope I'm above the ground then.'' But in the past year, Woods has joined the effort. Perhaps he looked beyond his own personal aspirations and realized the Olympics would be good for the game.

And let's be honest here, many of the people who have jumped in to help the Olympic golf movement, such as Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam, would benefit from seeing the game grow around the world. They are golf course designers -- as is Woods, who said earlier this week that he will participate in 2016 if he hasn't retired. Of course, he'll be all of 40 years old by then. I don't think it hurts that Tiger is on board, but I don't think we'll see him playing at the 2020 Games, either.

So that begs the question: Could this have come down to one of the most famous athletes in the world throwing his support behind a movement in which he might or might not participate just once?

FROM: Graham Hays More

TO: Bob Harig

It's a dangerous gamble for the IOC if that's the case. I find it hard to believe it wasn't influenced by the idea of having arguably the world's biggest sporting icon (especially if men's soccer remains a largely under-23 affair) involved in its show and smiling at the camera during Opening Ceremonies. And if there's a sense Rio de Janeiro is the favorite to host in 2016, it makes it all the more attractive to have him in a South American market, right?

Speaking as one of those millions of casual golf fans who are more likely to tune in on Sundays if Tiger is in contention, I'd say it will be a big part of his legacy. Tiger trying to do for golf what the 1992 Dream Team did for basketball. That's an addictive premise for the IOC. I'd like to say there's a softball star, someone college-age like Stanford's Ashley Hansen or a holdover like Cat Osterman, who could have a worldwide impact by 2016, given the chance. But when we're talking Tiger, it's a completely different universe.

Tiger aside (or maybe not, depending on just how much influence he has), what do you think this does for women's golf? The LPGA's woes are well publicized these days. Does competing at the same venue as the PGA stars potentially raise their profiles, or does it mean they won't see much of the spotlight? Selfishly, as a fan of women's sports, I'd at least like to think there's some silver lining to softball's misery.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Graham Hays

This probably helps women's golf because they will not be going head to head with the men. The plan at this point is to have a 72-hole women's tournament during the first week and a 72-hole men's tournament the second week. If they play at the same venue, all the better, although that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. And just like the men's game, women golfers from around the world would in theory be given more opportunities because countries would throw funding toward developing players.

But if it's going to be just two players per country -- aside from those ranked among the top 15 in the world -- that seems like a poor tradeoff for women's sports fans. A softball team, obviously, is going to have far more participants. And like we talked about before, golf already has its platforms called the major championships. The Olympics could only hope to match that, even in women's golf, where four majors are played every year. Softball does not have the same platform.

FROM: Graham Hays More

TO: Bob Harig

And it's not clear what platform softball has left. Next year's world championships in Oklahoma City will be a good test to see how the sport stands on its own. Television ratings for fastpitch in the United States -- both at the college level in the Women's College World Series and next level at last month's World Cup -- have never been better. But a lot of emerging national programs (like China) might not be willing to invest money going forward in a sport that doesn't offer Olympic exposure.

Ultimately, I guess this comes down to what the IOC believes its mission is. From a purely business standpoint, golf might make more monetary sense than softball in the short term. But by cutting a team sport for women that offers a great deal of potential reach (after all, you don't need much more than a bat, a ball, a glove and some undeveloped open space to play), the IOC missed a long-term opportunity and fell short of its supposed commitment to women's sports. And now, it has failed to correct that mistake.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com and can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com. Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's Olympics coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

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