The Olympic Golf Course in Rio is empty.
With the conclusion of the women’s golf tournament, just a day before the closing ceremonies in the Olympic Stadium, the Gil Hanse-designed golf course won’t be used by anyone again until October, when the facility opens for public play.
The month and a half with an open tee sheet could have been avoided, however, had golf been admitted to the program for the Paralympics, which start Sept. 7 in Brazil at many of the same venues used for the Olympics. A total of 22 sports are in the program, and there’s not a total overlap compared to the 28-sport Olympic lineup.
Golf is one of the sports that doesn’t appear in both programs, and that’s partially because golf did not make a better push in 2010 to get the sport in the Paralympics.
While the International Golf Federation, golf’s Olympic-recognized governing body, co-operated in helping make the bid, it was not at the forefront of the push. The European Disabled Golf Association appealed to the IGF for help, rallying disabled golf organizations from the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Africa to also participate.
The sport learned the bad news at the end of that year, that para-golf would not be one of two sports admitted for 2016 in Rio. Instead, para-canoeing and para-triathlon got into the Games.
According to Haruko Matsuda, who works with Japan’s disabled golf association, golf didn’t get the nod because it was “too early” to be welcomed by the International Paralympic Committee, which runs the Paralympics, into the program. In part, it’s because getting a sport into either the Olympics or Paralympics is a process, both political and structural.
However, para-golf lacked some key baseline organizational infrastructure that the IPC demands of any sport before it gets into the Paralympics. In para-golf’s case, the sport hadn’t organized a continuously-run world championship, had never published a world ranking for disabled golfers and had yet to develop a clear classification code for para-golfers to compete under in the program.
Four years later, para-golf could again bid to get into the 2020 program in Tokyo. However, no bid was even made. The International Golf Federation didn’t submit a bid, according to Matsuda, claiming a lack of integration among the world’s leading disabled golf associations. In other words, things had not dramatically improved in the intervening four years since the initial bid to merit going through the political process of making a bid, defending and lobbying for it, then hoping for inclusion.
Badminton and taekwondo were welcomed, with football sevens and sailing removed from the Tokyo program.
This was a sobering moment for many in the para-golf community, recognizing that the deficiencies from the 2010 bid needed to be addressed. That work began to take shape later in 2014, with Japan hosting the first World Disabled Golf Championship that September. Players from 15 countries took part in the competition, with Sweden’s Johan Kammerstad winning the men’s individual competition with a 54-hole total of 226, good enough for a seven-shot win over Australian Shane Luke. In the women’s division, Mette Wegge Lyngaard of Denmark won with a total of 239. Hiroshi Nojima won the wheelchair division event with a 36-hole total of 210.
The tournament was a step in the right direction, but the turnout fell short of the IPC’s minimum standard of demonstrating broad, worldwide participation. The IPC requires an individual sport applying for inclusion to the Paralympic program boast players from a minimum of 32 countries in three IPC regions.
The second World Disabled Golf Championship was played at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Oregon during the Olympics.
Overcoming another stumbling block with their initial bid, the EDGA now publishes a ranking of top European disabled golfers.
More good news for para-golf came at the beginning of 2016, when the IGF was accepted by the IPC as a member. As part of the agreement, the IPC pledged support for para-golf and its worldwide development in coming years.
The IGF did not respond to multiple requests for comment and interviews for this story, intending to learn plans the organization’s plans to offer assistance and resources that can help para-golf coalesce and organize in ways it has been unable to do, at least to the satisfaction of the IPC.
The hope is that these developments will impress the IPC, getting para-golf in the program in 2024. Dean Jarvis, who runs the Amputee Long Drive Championship and is a key voice in the para-golf community, said he hopes para-golf can be in the program by the time 5-year-old, one-armed sensation Tommy Morrissey is old enough to compete.
However, challenges remain. The IGF is still trying to figure out a representative mix for the sport that not only represents a large footprint for the sport, but that also includes the organizations which have worked at the grassroots level of this push. National golf associations have been tapped to represent countries for para-golf rather than disabled golf associations. For example, USA Golf has been named the American disabled golf representative organization instead of the United States Disabled Golf Association, which operates the United States Disabled Open. This is a sore subject in the para-golf community, which feels there is a lack of support for their sport among broader golf organizations.
Then there’s the ongoing challenges of Olympic committees in host cities having enough money to fully support the Paralympics. The Rio 2016 organizing committee is dramatically cutting spending, venue availability and financial support for the Paralympics in a few weeks, short some $200 million after the Olympic Games. They’ve made a plea for public money to help with the massive shortfall. As more top-tier worldwide cities decide hosting the Olympics is not worth it in a variety of ways, these funding problems could become more glaring.
In one sense, this may work in favor of para-golf for future Games. It’s more likely golf infrastructure will already be in place in the 2024 host city — the finalists are Budapest, Hungary; Hamburg, Germany; Paris; Los Angeles or Rome — meaning that the funding to conduct a para-golf tournament could be relatively small.
The para-golf community believes the opportunity be in the Paralympics, however, could be huge.