Newly reintroduced to Olympics, golf could be gauge of Rio's success

For many, golf is symbolic of the vast challenges faced by host cities, from environmental concerns around construction to whether long-term benefits will reach beyond the elite.

AP/Felipe Dana
Aerial view of the Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Summer Games start Aug. 5, 2016.

When Claudio Lourenço da Silva Filho thinks of golf, he pictures a world apart.

Mr. da Silva Filho, a middle-aged construction worker from the hillside favela of Rocinha, recalls as a teenager scouring for balls hit beyond the fence of the Gávea Golf and Country Club, an exclusive course visible from his poor community. He’d crack the shells and use the elastic bands to make slingshots, the best use he could find for the stray balls.

Some 28 years later, that fence – and the divide it represents – remains.

“Golf has always been over there,” he says, pointing toward the manicured fairways from a rooftop in his vibrant and gritty neighborhood of roughly 70,000, where people socialize around community ping-pong tables in narrow alleyways or in the doorways of motorcycle repair shops.

After a 112-year hiatus, golf is returning to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer. It’s an exciting moment for fans and players. But for many, golf’s reintroduction as an Olympic sport is symbolic of the vast challenges faced by Rio – and other developing-world cities – as Olympic hosts. Those hurdles include everything from environmental concerns around construction, protests against public spending, athlete boycotts over the Zika epidemic or public security, and an overarching sense that the Games may bequeath benefits only for the city’s elite.

Olympic organizers have placed a special emphasis on the legacy of the G​ames. They don't want a fleeting summer party, but an event that will leave a lasting mark on Rio, benefitting the entire city through projects such as transportation. 

To some, golf can be a gauge of just how successfully that mission is accomplished. Indeed, while the sport remains a bastion of Brazil’s upper crust, an untraditional group of golf supporters in an impoverished pocket of Rio de Janeiro State are rooting for it to emerge from the Games with a new, more inclusive image. 

“Golf is the most contradictory element of these Games,” says Christopher Gaffney, a professor at the University of Zurich who studies large-scale sports events like the Olympics.

'Golf for whom?'

When Rio was chosen to host the Olympic Games in 2009 – long before the economy of the biggest and most populous country in South America started to sputter, and a corruption scandal tarnished top businessmen and politicians – it was lauded as an achievement for rising star Brazil. But as construction got underway, protesters here took to the 14 acres of coastal land protecting a swathe of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest to call for a halt to the Olympic golf course construction.

Waving signs that read, “Golf for Whom?” and later creating a small movement called “Occupy Golf,” these protesters sought to draw attention to the influence of local real-estate tycoons, and how they came to acquire the land. They also called out the course construction for its effect on endangered plant and animal life (even though it recently won a coveted environmental prize from Golf Digest magazine).

These protesters consider themselves successful because they raised awareness about what is considered the underbelly of the Olympics. Complaints like theirs were echoed in other Olympic-building contexts, too.

Silvia Izquierdo/AP/File
A protestor on Copacabana beach walks next to a sign that reads, "Golf for whom?" on Aug. 1, 2015. The small demonstration called attention to the money spent in preparing for the Olympic Games and the environmental impact of the construction of the official golf course, carved into a nature reserve.

Take the construction of the Olympic Village, for instance, on a nearby site in Barra da Tijuca, a sleek area that has emerged over the past two decades as a wealthy enclave largely isolated from the brutal realities of crime and violence that plague many parts of Rio. Hundreds of families who lived in Vila Autódromo, a favela established by fishermen long before the Olympic bid, put up a struggle to remain. In the end, most were evicted, and the community was bulldozed.

“We were successful because we exposed issues that the Brazilian media did not show,” says Jean Carlos Novaes, a real-estate lawyer who was involved in the golf-course protests, speaking on a recent afternoon by the entrance to the course, which lies opposite elegant homes in the neighborhood of Condomínio Malibú.

Mr. Novaes expresses an opinion held by many here: that local media have — for the most part — championed Rio’s hosting of this summer’s Olympics without delving into the conflicts that have arisen along the way.

Upgrades to infrastructure, including sports venues, new transport links, and a remodeled Port Zone, were met with excitement on the cover of a July issue of Época, a weekly news magazine, for example. The story spoke to readers in honeyed tones about “a Rio de Janiero that, after the competition, will belong to all cariocas,” referring to Rio’s residents.

But many here doubt that. Real-estate developers are expected to make millions off of the Olympic Village after the Games by selling off the athletes’ accommodation as luxury housing. And although the Olympic golf course is set to be made public after the Games wrap, there have been no public announcements about green fees, and rumors are swirling that the cost to play could reach $200, far out of reach for the average Brazilian.

More generally, amid Brazil’s economic slump – and with the state of Rio de Janeiro hit particularly hard — enthusiasm for the Games has waned.

Across parts of this soccer-obsessed city, traditional Olympic sports like track and field are failing to stir much passion. Domestic ticket sales are low, with reports saying organizers – fearing venues would be largely empty – are giving tickets away, particularly for the Paralympics in September. And adjacent to the sloping staircases that lead up into favelas like Rocinha, street murals painted for the 2014 soccer World Cup remain regular features, while there’s nearly no artwork anticipating the Olympics.

People here say they’d prefer the estimated $20 billion of public and private funds spent on the Games — which have run hugely over budget, according to a July study by the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford — to be invested in housing, hospitals, or education.  

“It’s absurd,” says soccer-mad Francisco Alves dos Santos, serving a thimble of lemon-flavored cachaça, a local drink, to a customer from his kiosk in Rocinha. “The state is broke; the hospitals have no doctors; the schools have no teachers. Golf? To tell the truth, I don’t care.”

'The Olympic course is perfect'

Despite these blistering critiques, there are some unexpected supporters who believe the sport could be one of the most positive legacies of the Rio Games.

Teenager Breno Domingos is from Japeri, a poor municipality 50 miles northwest of Rio. His mother is unemployed, his father is getting by with odd construction jobs, and many of his friends dropped out of school, going to work when they were still boys.

But for Mr. Domingos, golf has been a way out, with competitions allowing him to see a world beyond this dusty satellite town nestled in lush hills outside Rio. Many Japeri residents only go as far as their daily commute takes them to work low-wage jobs in other parts of the city, like caddying at Gávea, the exclusive golf club near Rocinha. 

When the former mayor of Japeri built a nine-hole golf course here a decade ago, he envisaged it would become a powerful draw for golfers who had just two courses from which to choose in Rio. The idea was that wealthy tourists would help spur the local economy by coming here to play a few holes.

But the course — cut into the red ocher earth and, as of now, the only public green in Brazil— swiftly piqued the interest of young locals, says Vicky Whyte, president of the Japeri Public Golf Association. A round only costs between $7 and $17, compared to the annual membership reported to be in the thousands at other courses in Brazil.

Ms. Whyte and her colleagues set up a golf school, which has allowed hundreds of youngsters to learn the sport. With an aim to strengthen commitment to education, the only condition for playing is that kids must also attend school regularly.

“It’s not about the golf,” says Whyte. “It’s about pulling these kids off the streets and showing them that they’re allowed to dream, that they’re allowed a better life.”

Domingos has emerged in recent years as Japeri’s star golfer and is now one of the best players in Rio de Janeiro State. Crucially, a golf scholarship allowed him to enroll for a university degree in civil engineering.  

“The Olympic course is perfect. I think it’s going to help attract more players,” Domingos says, practicing shots with donated clubs against the backdrop of precariously built homes in the distance.

Of the 120 young golfers involved in the program, many feel similarly. Take Denis Basílio Campos, a 16-year-old from a working-class family, who, as he guides younger players across the sloping fairways, says he hopes the Olympic course can be used to roll out social inclusion programs similar to the one in Japeri. It is unclear, however, if any such plans are afoot, and Paulo Pacheco, president of the Brazilian Golf Confederation, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

A missed opportunity?

Even though golf is viewed by Domingos and his peers as a vehicle for transforming lives, the absence of the world’s top four male golfers at this summer’s Games has, for some, dashed hopes that the sport’s Olympic return could help popularize it in Brazil. It’s left observers asking whether golf could end up as little more than a failed experiment in a faraway land. Still, the Olympics are set to give the world’s best women golfers exposure on the global stage.

Some of the male golfers dropped out citing Zika, while others pointed to public security issues, underscoring the problematic context in which the Games are being hosted Aug. 5 - 21. But some players simply said they only care about golf’s more traditional and profitable tournaments, underminding the possibility of inspiring a future Domingos around Rio and across Brazil.  

“I didn’t get into golf to grow the game,” Rory McIlroy, ranked No. 4 globally for golf, told a news conference in July. 

For some researchers, it underscores what they claim is a worrying trend: That the Games have evolved into a large-scale event disconnected from most host-city residents. The Olympics, they argue, are geared toward the global business community to serve its own interests. They point to Boston withdrawing its bid to the host the 2024 Olympics by way of evidence.

“There is no proof at all that there are gains,” from hosting the Olympics, says Carlos Vainer, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s urban planning institute, who has written about the Games’ impact on host cities. “The benefits are appropriated by a small group of interests,” Mr. Vainer says, offering a theory that cities like Rio have in recent decades tended to disregard their social fabric in favor of business-oriented initiatives that further stratify the rich and the poor.

Still, despite the prevalence of critical views like this in the build-up to the Olympics, there is positivity, too.

Back in Rocinha, construction worker da Silva Filho is hopeful about some aspects of the Games: he and his neighbors could benefit from the new metro line built to transport fans to Barra da Tijuca, where the golf course and Olympic Village are. The line runs past the favela, and, when the fans have long gone, would ease the commute for those who work across Rio’s south side. And da Silva Filho reckons the Games might well succeed culturally in promoting new sports to young people in Rocinha.  

But as for golf, the gains are harder to envision. “They don’t want poor people in,” he says.

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