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Golf faces uncertain Olympic future due to numerous dropouts

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AKRON, Ohio (AP) — For the longest time, golf’s biggest headache in preparing for a return to the Olympics was getting a new course built in Rio de Janeiro.

That seems like a nuisance compared with its next major hurdle.

Who’s going to play?

Ten eligible players over the last two months have pulled out of the Olympics, six of them specifically citing concerns about the Zika virus. The last week alone was particularly devastating to a sport wanting to make a good impression after being gone from the games for 112 years.

Rory McIlroy, a four-time major champion with the broadest global appeal among young stars, was the most prominent player to withdraw. That was until Tuesday when Jason Day, the No. 1 player in the world, said he would not be going. Shane Lowry and Branden Grace are planning to start families and will stay home because of Zika.

That’s four players from the top 25 who won’t be in Rio, and dread that more might follow.

One of them might be Jordan Spieth, who described his Olympic position Tuesday as “uncertain.”

“I’ve always been excited about the possible opportunity, but there’s quite a few different factors that would turn somebody away from going. It’s not just one, there’s quite a few factors,” Spieth said, mentioning Zika, security and reports of violence.

The International Golf Federation stopped responding to each withdrawal because it was repeating the same statement: It is disappointed, but understands that each player has to decide on his own.

“Unfortunately with what’s going on with Brazil and Rio with the Zika virus, there’s a small chance it could happen, and I just can’t put my family through that, especially with the future children we’re looking at having,” Day said.

While the sport is assured a spot in 2020 in Tokyo, the International Olympic Committee will vote next year to decide if golf stays longer than that. And it doesn’t help when there’s an All-Star roster of players who won’t be there for whatever reasons.

Because countries are limited to two players (a maximum of four if they are among the top 15), only 18 players from the top 50 will be in Rio – as of Tuesday.

IGF executive director Antony Scanlon, who has been involved in nine Olympics, believes golf still can put on a good show.

“We gave a commitment to have the best players there,” Scanlon said. “The decision they’re making are personal. We can’t make those decisions for them. All you can do is understand the decision they’re making. After the games, we’ll have two worthy champions, gold medalists that history will look back on. When the IOC members come to the venue, they’re going to have a great time. They’ll experience a sport where you can get close to the players and see their passion and determination.

“All we can do is make sure we deliver a great event.”

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

When golf made its pitch to get back into the Olympics for the first time since St. Louis in 1904, the IGF presented video support from Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and other top players who offered enthusiasm and unconditional support for Olympic competition.

That was in 2009, before Brazil was devastated by political corruption and an economic meltdown, before concerns over polluted water and whether Rio could provide adequate security. And that was before Zika.

Brazil has been the hardest hit by the outbreak of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus linked to severe birth defects and possible neurological problems in adults. Charl Schwartzel and Lowry said if the Olympics were anywhere else, they would be there.

“The Olympic committee has to look at this and go, ‘Look, it was a weird situation, so don’t penalize golf because of a weird situation,'” Bubba Watson said.

But is it as simple as blaming it on Rio?

No women eligible for the Olympics have dropped out, and they would seem to be at greater risk from Zika. Then again, the women do not have the chance to play on a big stage like the Olympics. All three of their U.S. majors are held the week before the men’s majors and often get lost in coverage.

The perception is that Zika is an easy way out from going to South America for an Olympic competition that has little history behind it in golf. And the leading organizations did themselves no favors by cramming their biggest events into the summer ahead of the games. The final two majors, the British Open and PGA Championship, will be held in the month before the competition in Rio.

After the Olympics, PGA Tour players go right into the lucrative FedEx Cup, and then for Americans and Europeans, it’s off to the Ryder Cup and its flag-waving fervor.

“Other athletes have been training four and eight years to go to the Olympics. I can see why they’re going because it’s the pinnacle of their sport,” Lowry said. “It’s not the pinnacle of golf yet. It could be in 20 years’ time. But it’s not like winning the U.S. Open or winning the Masters or playing in the Ryder Cup.”

MORE: Tiger Woods wishes Olympic golf tournament had ‘more quality’ field

Ski jumping World Cup season kicks off in Poland

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The World Cup ski jump season opens Friday with men’s team and individual events in Wisla, Poland.

The host country had three of the top five jumpers in the overall standings last year. Defending champion Kamil Stoch placed third, Piotr Zyla was close behind in fourth, and Dawid Kubacki was fifth.

Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi dominated last year’s competition, finishing with 2,085 points to 1,349 for runner-up Stefan Kraft of Austria, the 2017 World Cup champion.

Kobayashi’s performance was a dramatic improvement over his previous season, when he finished no higher than sixth in any individual competition and was 24th overall. Last year, he had 15 wins and 23 podium finishes in 30 World Cup events, though he only managed fourth and 14th in the two world championship events.

The top American last season, Kevin Bickner, finished 51st overall, a drop from 39th the year before. He was 18th and 20th in the 2018 Olympic jumps.

Women’s World Cup action begins Dec. 6-8 in Lillehammer, Norway.

NBC Sports Gold will broadcast World Cup action throughout the season. This weekend, the qualifying jumps will air at noon ET Friday, the team event starts at 11:30 a.m. ET Saturday, and the individual competition is at 6 a.m. Sunday.

MORE: Full ski jumping broadcast schedule

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Snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton Carpenter dies at 65

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Jake Burton Carpenter, the pioneer who brought snowboarding to the masses and helped turn the sport into a billion-dollar business and Olympic showpiece, has died at 65.

He died Wednesday night in Burlington, Vermont, according to an email sent to the staff of the company he founded. Carpenter had emailed his staff this month saying, “You will not believe this, but my cancer has come back.” He had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011 but after several months of therapy had been given a clean bill of health.

Carpenter quit his job in New York in 1977 to form the company now known simply as Burton. His goal was to advance the rudimentary snowboard, then called a “Snurfer,” which had been invented by Sherman Poppen a dozen years earlier.

It worked, and more than four decades later, snowboarding is a major fixture at the Winter Games and snowboards are as common as skis at resorts across the globe.

“He was our founder, the soul of snowboarding, the one who gave us the sport we all love so much,” Burton co-CEO John Lacy said in his email to the staff.

It is virtually impossible to avoid the name “Burton” once the snow starts falling at any given mountain around the world these days. The name is plastered on the bottoms of snowboards, embroidered on jackets, stenciled into bindings.

At a bar in Pyeongchang, South Korea, not far from where snowboarding celebrated its 20th anniversary at the Olympics last year, there was a wall filled with Burton pictures and memorabilia — as sure a sign as any of the global reach of a company founded in his garage in Londonderry, Vermont.

The company sponsored pretty much every top rider at one time or another — from Shaun White to Kelly Clark to Chloe Kim.

Carpenter watched all his champions win their Olympic golds from near the finish line, never afraid to grind away in the mosh pit of snowboarders and snowboarding fans that he helped create.

In an interview in 2010, he said he was happy with how far his sport had come, and comfortable with where it was going.

“I had a vision there was a sport there, that it was more than just a sledding thing, which is all it was then,” Burton said. “We’re doing something that’s going to last here. It’s not like just hitting the lottery one day.”

Lacy said details about the celebration of Burton’s life would be coming soon but, for now, “I’d encourage everyone to do what Jake would be doing tomorrow, and that’s riding. It’s opening day at Stowe, so consider taking some turns together, in celebration of Jake.”

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