SPORTING LIFE

Give me Rio's less-watched, less-paid: Olympic golf is just not my cup of tee

This is what I am going to do at the Rio Olympics in August. Not watch golf. Not even if Rory McIlroy could do a reverse two-and-a-half somersault in pike position while hitting the ball. Not even if Jordan Spieth came dressed to the first tee in a wrestling singlet. They can walk for hours in peace. I'll be watching a Chinese diver take 2.4 seconds to fall from 10m and slice open the water.

From the time George Lyon won the 1904 Olympics we should have known golf and the Games was an upside-down idea. As David Wallechinsky's The Complete Book of the Olympics reveals, Lyon walked his way to the ceremony on his hands. Four years earlier, at the 1900 Olympics, the socialite daughter of an American novelist followed her mother to Paris. Margaret Abbott was going to study art but instead won the Olympic title in golf partly because all the French competitors turned up in high heels.

That was sacrilegious, which is a fine word to describe the actions of Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen. These terrific fellows said "no" to the Olympics, which for some is roughly akin to a musician refusing to play alongside The Boss.

No swimmer would ever tell you he's too busy to be at the Games. No runner would claim the pursuit of gold doesn't fit his schedule. And yet the golfers' refusal only raised a few manicured eyebrows because for them gold only comes after Green Jacket, Claret Jug, Wanamaker Trophy and US Open trophy. It's just not a Major deal.

Anyway I'm not just skipping the golf in Rio but hoping to bunk the tennis too. In four Olympics, I've been to watch the racket boys only twice. First in Atlanta 1996 when Leander Paes won an individual medal for India after 44 years. Then, on final day in London 2012, I'd gone to wander Wimbledon - which I had first visited in 1987 - only to find myself stuck behind a large, repetitive Brit yelling: "Come on, Undy" after each point in a falsetto voice. Thank you Undy, for beating Federer quickly.

In tennis, medals don't even register in the Federer v Nadal debate. In golf, no kid's daily dream is this metal piece dangling from a ribbon. But for the shooter it is: His world isn't golf and tennis and four chances a year. His world is four years and one chance. The Olympics is his time.

But tennis is a familiar sporting picture for us as Djokovic slides on our screens almost every week. Like the golfers, he is a headline hogger. But at the Olympics it's not the conventional I want to watch but the lesser known, the less frequently watched, the less well-paid.

The runner, jumper, thrower, rower. The rider, shooter, diver, weightlifter. All of them inviting us every four years into wondrous secret worlds. We figure out that divers use a shammy - a small cloth - to dry their bodies so that their hands don't slip off their knees while rotating. We're introduced to the agony of the rower or as five-time gold medallist Steve Redgrave wrote: "The pain of rowing is the scream of lungs, legs, back and muscles. That's just one stroke. Multiply that by 240 strokes in a 2000m race."

We appreciate that judokas eat in amounts not recommended in the Paleo diet. In 2012, Polish judoka Janusz Wojnarowicz told me he ate eight eggs for breakfast and a kilo of steak for lunch. I looked him up and down and believed him: He was 170kg. We find people like Hiroshi Hoketsu, a dressage competitor who was 71 in 2012 and couldn't remember how he felt at his first Games. We understand, because it was 1964 and Julie Andrews had starred in Mary Poppins.

I want to watch these athletes because the Games defines them: How often they get there is how we grade them and how many medals they win is how we measure them. In tennis, medals don't even register in the Federer v Nadal debate. In golf, no kid's daily dream is this metal piece dangling from a ribbon. But for the shooter it is: His world isn't golf and tennis and four chances a year. His world is four years and one chance. The Olympics is his time.

The Games have sought a modern balance: They want to embrace tradition yet wish to be popular, they are born of an ancient ideal yet are also a business. As an athletic party they viewed themselves as incomplete if NBA stars weren't invited, Tiger Woods was missing (ironically, he will be) and Serena was absent. They've had to resolve a dilemma but I don't have one.

For me, Simone Biles as an Olympic attraction beats Stan Wawrinka every single time. He's a tennis star with 615,000 Twitter followers and enough publicity and pampering. She's a gymnast who makes the stunning seem simple, is the only woman to win the all-around world title thrice in a row and has only 44,000 followers. To lose here won't hurt his reputation but to win here will seal her legend. Desperation breeds its own beauty.

And so, as far as I care, the smiling Oosthuizen can spend his August retooling his swing in Florida as long as Michael Phelps shows up in Rio to do his part-the-waters stuff. And the swell Scott can wander off into the Australian outback as long as Eliud Kipchoge turns up in Brazil. On Sunday the Kenyan won the London Marathon in 2:03:05, which raises a lovely question: How could you not watch this man who runs 42km faster than an Olympic golfer will take to finish nine holes?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Give me Rio's less-watched, less-paid: Olympic golf is just not my cup of tee'. Print Edition | Subscribe