Friday October 9th, 2009

One more reason to buy a ticket to Rio in 2016? Tiger Woods.

Rugby can start to scrum and golf can tee up after both sports were officially admitted to the 2016 Olympic program on Friday in a majority vote of the IOC membership in Copenhagen.

Golf won admission by a vote of 63-27 with one abstention. Rugby passed with a more decisive 81-8, with two abstentions. The two sports were put up to a vote after the IOC's 15-member executive committee had nominated them in August for addition to the program from a list that included squash, karate, roller sports and the re-inclusion of baseball and softball.

With the addition of golf, the Olympics, which opened its doors to the likes of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Roger Federer by liberalizing eligibility rules in recent years, will likely include Woods when the Games open in Rio seven years from now.

While rugby received strong backing across the IOC, there was some concern this week that golf would have more trouble. Golf received the fewest votes of the candidate sports when it applied for addition to the 2012 program four years ago. As rugby agreed to abandon its prestigious world cup during Olympic years, some members expressed reservations about adding golf on the theory that athletes would consider Olympic medals less prestigious than other events such as the Masters or British Open.

But the possible addition of Woods is huge gain for the Olympics. Despite the Olympics claims to champion amateurism, professional star power rules and the addition of recognized international sporting figures could encourage television networks and sponsors to spend more money on the Games.

The question is, how long will this gain last? Though elite players such as Woods have said they would participate in 2016, there is still concern that enthusiasm for Olympic golf will wane as the novelty of playing at the Games for medals rather than money wears off. NBA players enthusiastically courted spots on the first Dream Team in 1992, but other stars cited prior commitments and family conflicts in begging off in subsequent years. Still, Jacques Rogge, a former rugby player himself and a powerful IOC President with the means to sway his membership, was open in his desire to see the two sports confirmed.

Among those who traveled to Copenhagen this week to pitch (and putt) on behalf of her sport, Michelle Wie told the story of growing up as a fan of both Woods and South African star Ernie Els. "I can dream of doing something not even Tiger or Ernie has done," she told the IOC members. "I could make a final putt to win the Olympic Games."

Ireland's Padraig Harrington, Norway's Suzann Pettersen and Italian junior champ Matteo Manassero also spoke to the board. Addressing perceptions about the sport's elitism, the four golfers said they would gladly live with athletes from other sports in the Olympic village as opposed to an exclusive hotel. "I could see no point in being there and not walking with the athletes in the opening ceremony and seeing what they go through in the Olympic village," Harrington said. The Irishman also agreed that golf's perceived elitism might have caused some of the no votes the sport received from the IOC. "I do believe [that perception] was a stumbling block," Harrington said. "I believe our inclusion in the Olympics will help to change that."

Though Woods did not appear in person, he did take part in a video during the sport's 20-minute presentation, saying that golf in the Games would be "beneficial for both the sport and the Olympic movement." Other former and current players in the video included Sweden's Annika Sorenstam, Mexico's Lorena Ochoa, Canada's Mike Weir and Korea's KJ Choi.

International Golf Federation acting president Peter Dawson told members that the sport's major associations, the PGA and LPGA, would clear their tour schedule of other tournaments during the Olympics, so nothing would be in conflict with the Games. The men's and women's fields will each consist of 60 players, including the top 15 from the world rankings, followed by the remaining players with a maximum of two per country. Now the IGF must grow into deeper relevance as a recognized Olympic federation and the agency must decide where to hold the competition in Rio, which has not named a site for golf.

The version of rugby approved by the IOC, rugby sevens, is a modified version of the more traditional 15-aside game. There would be 12 teams in each of the men's and women's rugby tournaments, and contests at the Olympics will last 15 minutes. The sport has already been a part of the Asian Games for many years. Several IOC members, including Australia's Kevan Gosper, Ireland's Patrick Hickey and Lebanon's Toni Khoury, expressed their open support for rugby in what was intended as a question and answer session.

As expected, by a vote of 88-1, with three abstentions, the membership re-elected Jacques Rogge to another term as IOC President. Rogge, who represented his native Belgium as a sailor at three Olympics, was given an eight-year term at the Moscow session in 2001.

As per IOC rules, the 67-year-old retired surgeon was eligible for another four-year term after the first one expired. Rogge has said he does not intend to remain a voting IOC member after his final term as president expires in 2013.

The IOC voted in six new members on Friday, bringing the committee to 112 members: Richard Peterkin, the president of the St. Lucia Olympic Committee (74 votes for and 16 against); Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark, a yachtsman who is expected to replace veteran countryman Kai Holm on the committee (77-9); Habib Abdul Nabi Macki from Oman, the vice chair of the Olympic Council of Asia; (67-18) Lydia Nsekera of Burundi, the head of the Burundi Football Association and the first female president of such an association on the African continent (82-6); Goran Petersson of Sweden, president of the International Sailing Federation (76-12); and Habu Ahmed Gumel, the president of the Nigerian Olympic Committee (74-13).

No Americans were considered for new posts. Anita DeFrantz and Jim Easton remain the only two on the IOC. When the new members walked into the room after being voted in, President Rogge told them, "You are now sitting at a back bench, but I want to give you some consolation that by aging you will be moving forward."

Some comments speak for themselves. Three weight classes of women's boxing will be added to the Olympics for the first time in 2012. The advancement of women athletes in the Olympics has greatly enhanced the Games, but don't tell that to Mohamed Mzali, the 73-year-old IOC member from Tunisia, who said the following to the membership on Friday:

"You may accuse me of old fashioned. I have difficulty imagining young women [with] good figures, who are going to be victims of punches and who will have black eyes, who will maybe bleed, who will receive maybe hard knocks on their breasts, which are meant to feed babies. I would hate to see women hurt and maybe faint in the ring. But I will vote in favor of the decision taken by the executive board."

Taiwan's Ching-Kuo Wu, President of AIBA, the international governing body for boxing, answered by noting that the most recent world championship for women produced "No single injury, no blood. Safety is the biggest issue for women's boxing."

No sooner had the decision about the 2016 Olympics been decided than it was time to look ahead to 2018. Cities wanting to bid for the Winter Games nine years away have to send in applications by Oct. 15. Pyeongchang, South Korea; Annecy, France; Munich, Germany; and Harbin, China, are expected to apply.

Denver and the region of Reno/Tahoe had expressed interest in mounting a bid, but it seems unlikely that the U.S. will submit a city for consideration, given the poor result for Chicago and the disarray of the USOC.

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