A decade or so back the then new editor of this newspaper group invited a dozen or so journalists from across the titles into a room and asked their opinion on how to improve coverage of sport. A dozen or so hands went up and, seeing them, the new boss added with world weariness: “Any ideas...that don’t include covering all the diddy sports.” A dozen or so hands went down.
It would be nice to think that the current mania for synchronised diving, judo, canoeing and the trampoline proved my former editor wrong about our appetite for second-tier sports but I think not.
The Olympics is the home of the disadvantaged, the ignored and the overlooked sports. There are several very obvious exceptions to the rule but, in general, Olympians are anonymous for three years and 11 months and, like some rare plant, only flower once every four years. Andy Warhol’s comment about 15 minutes of fame might have been made with the Games in mind.
There are 39 sports in the Rio Olympics but if we were fed a diet of archery, BMX bikes and swimming every weekend of the year we might not raise the same enthusiasm as we did for swimmer Siobahn Marie O’Connor, who won silver in the 200 metre medley at the age of just 20 despite suffering from colitis, or the Kazakh weightlifter Nijat Rahimov, who celebrated gold with a little jig.
It is their very rarity, the knowledge that we won’t see their like again for another four years, that allows us to share the triumph of Ed Ling, a Somerset farmer who can shoot clays out of air before I have managed to spot the sucker. Good luck to any pheasants that show up in his hedgerow.
But if we concede that the Olympics are the domain, by and large, of the unsung heroes of sport who deserve their moment in the sun then surely the flip side is also true and that several big sports with global stars simply don’t belong at the Games? If the Olympics doesn’t represent the very pinnacle of a sport then that sport should not be there because the occasional apathy of their athletes debases the entire Olympic movement, and when they do show up the global stars are in danger of stealing the limelight from those whose work is usually conducted in the shadows.
Golf is the very obvious example. You can see why the International Olympic Committee originally sent the invitation, they wanted a little star dust sprinkled on proceedings. In short they wanted the highest profile sportsman on the planet: they wanted Tiger. Sadly the decision to add golf to Rio was made back in 2009, just months before the superstar drove his Cadillac into a fire hydrant and watched his entire life unravel before his disbelieving eyes.
These days Tiger is a spent force, barely swinging a cat never mind a driver. So rather than land the Big Kahuna, the IOC’s knees up was instead shunned by the four biggest names in golf because Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day all replied that they had a “previous”.
And you can understand why, even if the Zika virus is little more than a fig leaf. There isn’t a golfer alive who hasn’t dreamed about being measured for that famous green jacket at Augusta or lifting the Claret Jug after triumphing at the Open. Those events, plus the US Open and PGA completing the four majors, are the pinnacle of golf and they will remain the ultimate goal for every living, breathing golfer regardless of the Olympics.
Tennis is less straightforward. It is well attended these days but I’d still turf it out of the Olympics because once again the four majors – London, Paris, New York and Melbourne – remain the focus for those swinging a racket in earnest. Possibly restrict it to teams of doubles.
Furthermore the Olympics needs to have faith in the stars it has made because there is no shortage. Usain Bolt is a product of the Olympic Games, born 29 years ago in Jamaica but made just eight years back in Beijing and now the most recognisable athlete on the planet.
Michael Phelps is his aquatic equivalent, the most successful Olympian of all time with 22 gold medals to his tally as I write this article, although that number may well have risen by the time you read it. Add Sir Bradley Wiggins, the most charismatic cyclist of his generation, and extraordinary gymnast Simone Biles into the mix and you wonder why on earth the IOC thinks that they need golf, tennis and, worst of all, football stars to gild the Olympic lily?
Great Britain didn’t send a soccer team, which is a blessing because if golf is an anomaly, Olympic football is a sham. The sport is awash with high-class international tournaments: the World Cup, the Euros, the Copa America, the Africa Cup of Nations – heck, the average football fan would place the Beazer Homes League above the Olympics in terms of importance so why persist in wooing a sport that does not love you back?
So I would keep rugby sevens, which was a success despite the one-sided medal matches, but ignore the 15-a-side game which has its own Rugby World Cup. I would ditch golf, football, perhaps keeping the women’s tournament, tennis and road cycling from the Olympics and replace them with kite surfing, rock climbing and some other utterly obscure sport that needs the love and attention far more than footie.