A Tale of Two Olympic Sports: Indifferent Golf and Enthusiastic Ice Hockey Facing Opposite Dilemmas

Adam Scott
Adam Scott of Australia

Golf is returning to the Olympic stage in 2016, the first time since the third Olympics in 1904.

And yet, some big names in the game are declining their invitations: 3-time majors winner Vijay Singh of Fiji, World # 7 Adam Scott of Australia, and World #12 Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa.

And it’s possible they won’t be the only ones. While Singh cited fear over contracting the zika virus in Brazil, Scott explained that adding the Olympics to the already congested PGA Tour will make for an exhausting schedule. According to this article, “the PGA Tour has had to cram the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, British Open and PGA Championship into a five-week window because of the Olympics. And, two weeks after the Olympics end, the FedEx Cup playoffs begin. Two weeks after those are done, the Ryder Cup will be contested.”

In other words, ensuring they are in top condition for the tournaments that count are key to many of the top pro golfers.

Professional ice hockey players, perhaps many of them, may be having an opposite reaction. Ice hockey has been an Olympic sport since 1920, and countries like the United States, the Soviet Union and former members of that nation, and Canada have had epic battles in the Olympic Games over the decades.

Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

Professional ice hockey players, particularly those from the National Hockey League, were allowed to represent their national teams at the Olympics, starting from the Nagano Winter Games in 1998. But because the NHL and the owners of the team were worried about disruption to the NHL schedule as well as injuries, it was decided that the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) would foot the bill for transportation and insurance costs. For the Sochi Games in 2014, that was a combined USD$32 million!

The IOC, which provided USD$14 million of that bill for Sochi, just announced that they would not pay those costs to ensure the participation of NHL players at the PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018. Said Rene Fasel, president of the IIHF in this sportsnet article, “Our wish is to have the best players. [But the IOC] not covering the cost as they did at the last five Olympic Games puts us in a difficult financial situation.”

Immediately after this announcement, one of the NHL’s biggest stars, Alex Ovechkin, announced that he would join his Russian National Team for the PyeongChang Olympics regardless of the NHL’s decision. It’s likely that many of his colleagues in the NHL will have similar feelings.

Why the difference in reaction towards the Olympics? I’d have to speculate. But here are a couple of possible reasons:

  1. History: ice hockey and the Olympics have a long and emotional history. The Olympics are considered the pinnacle of achievement for many ice hockey players, even beyond the NHL Stanley Cup championship. Golf has practically no history in the Olympics.
  2. Rigors/Value of the Schedule: The Olympics happen at the time in the NHL schedule where teams are jockeying for playoff spots. But since the NHL controls the schedule, they can suspend the schedule for all teams, which makes it an even playing field for all teams. In the professional golf tour, as has been true with the professional tennis tour, those individuals who participate in the Olympics may lose out on opportunities to play in tournaments that will be more lucrative and perhaps perceived to be more important. When tennis returned to the Olympics in 1984, many of the best players did not compete.