Thursday August 13th, 2009

BERLIN - The IOC executive board voted Thursday to recommend golf and rugby to the Olympic program for the 2016 Games, rejecting the hopes of five other bidding sports, including baseball and softball. The board also passed over karate, roller sports and squash.

Publicly, representatives of golf and rugby attributed their nominations to the growing worldwide appeal of their sports. But golf surely brought the biggest name to the table. Tiger Woods will be 40 in 2016, presumably young enough to add another prize to the sports world's greatest résumé and esteemed enough to lure sponsors and television dollars with his broad star appeal. Rugby humbled itself more than the other sports, proposing to drop its prestigious world cup during Olympic years in deference to its inclusion at the Games.

The vote, taken by 14 of the board's 15 members -- IOC President Jacques Rogge abstained -- all but ensures that golf and rugby will be rubber stamped into the Games after a vote of the committee's general membership at the IOC Session in Copenhagen on Oct. 9. (The host city for those Games will be chosen a week earlier from among Chicago, Rio, Tokyo and Madrid.) Though Rogge does not typically vote on IOC matters, he confirmed as much Thursday when he said, "I hoped they [the new sports] would be included."

The openings on the program were created in 2005 when the IOC voted to drop baseball and softball after the 2008 Games. But in an ironic twist Thursday, the IOC's board chose to add women's boxing to the program at the 2012 Games in London, a decision that is not subject to the approval of the general membership since it entails adding events, or in this case, weight classifications within a sport, rather than an entirely new sport. In London, the 11 men's weight classes will be condensed to 10 and women will compete in three weight classes. That decision, made earlier in the day before the sport vote, may have offset softball's appeal as a women's sport that could improve the gender equity that the IOC has recently espoused. So softball, a sympathetic choice to return to the Games soon after it was eliminated, was thrown a curveball.

Rogge noted that softball's dismissal cost the IOC 120 female athlete positions. But rugby would add 144 women (12 players on each of 12 teams) and golf would add 60 individuals for a net gain of 84. The addition of women's boxing, he pointed out, further certified the IOC's commitment to gender equity.

That was news to Don Porter, the President of the International Softball Federation, who had led a campaign to reinstate his sport based on its exclusively female composition. "I had no idea that was going to be used to affect the numbers of our participation," said Porter, who sounded fazed by the curveball. "I didn't know that was a counter to one of our strengths we've been discussing."

Earlier in the day, the IOC agreed to consider subsequent requests by governing bodies of wrestling, cycling and swimming to add more female athletes to the Games if they reduced the corresponding number of male athletes in those sports. That decision could come as early as December, when the IOC's board meets in Lausanne.

For golf and rugby, the decision on Thursday ended lengthy campaigns for sports that were in the Olympics a century ago. Golf was played at the 1900 and 1904 Games. Rugby last appeared at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where the surprising gold medalists came from the United States. In 2016, golf would feature 72-hole stroke play tournaments for men and women; rugby would include tournaments of 12 men's teams and 12 women's teams.

Golf's leadership had highlighted the support of the game's top players, including Woods, in a video that featured ranked players from more than a dozen countries. Spain's Sergio Garcia, Mexico's Lorena Ochoa, Fiji's Vijay Singh, South Africa's Ernie Els, Australia's Karrie Webb, Colombia's Camilo Villegas, Canada's Mike Weir and Korea's K.J. Choi also swung and pitched.

Critics have questioned whether elite golfers will maintain their enthusiasm for the sport's participation after the novelty wears off. "The top players of today have affirmed enthusiastically that they will play in 2016," says Peter Dawson, CEO of the Royal and Ancient at St. Andrew. "I can't say who the top players will be seven years into the future or beyond that, but there is broad support there now . . . We still have to make golf's case to the IOC over the next few months, but I believe we speak with one voice." Dawson noted that the PGA and LPGA tours would work their schedules around the Olympic dates to avoid conflicts.

The rugby that will appear in 2016 will be the sevens, a version that features fewer players per side (seven instead of 15), takes less time to play and allows fewer substitutions (five instead of seven). There are several other adaptations from traditional rugby, including scrums with three players per side instead of eight. The modified version takes a sport that already enjoys broad popularity, especially in Commonwealth countries, and simplifies its nuances for less knowledgeable spectators. "Rugby will be a fabulous addition to the Olympics," insists Mike Millar, CEO of the International Rugby Board. "The athletes would be honored to be Olympians; the people who have not seen it would be captivated."

The executive board held two series of votes, each time eliminating sports, one by one, until the sport with the most votes earned a majority and won the right for nomination. In the first vote, rugby earned a majority in the second round after roller sports and squash were eliminated. Golf needed four rounds to earn a majority during the second vote. Karate was the IOC's third choice, followed in order by softball, baseball, squash and roller sports. None of the 15 members of the board came from the United States.

The board also made the following changes to its program: canoe/kayak sprint events will be reduced from 500 meters to 200 meters, opening up the possibilities for more athletes to win medals; modern pentathlon will include a run/shoot event; placement matches in team handball will be eliminated for places five through eight; and tennis may soon add a mixed doubles event to its program.

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