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Challenge for Olympic golf? Finding more medals

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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — With Olympic golf qualifying starting next month, the sport assured a spot in the next two Olympics (and likely 2028 as well), and the U.S. Open happening at Shinnecock Hills this week, International Golf Federation executive director Antony Scanlon sat down to discuss the second modern edition of Olympic golf in 2020 and what officials hope(d) would be different than in Rio …

OlympicTalk: Take me through the process of deciding to keep the Olympic golf format unchanged from 2016 to 2020. Were there any changes floated around?

Scanlon: Three weeks after the Olympics, all of us got together at Hazeltine, at the Ryder Cup, and said all bets are off. Let’s look at everything. The first thing we looked at was are there any other opportunities for more Olympic medals? We looked at opportunities with team events and mixed team events, etc. Once you got down to the realities of trying to condense that into 16 days of Olympic competition, you’re pretty much constricted to a 72-hole stroke play for men and the ladies. To get the players buying on that, they liked the four rounds of stroke play to determine who the best champion was. They didn’t want to come up with some sort of tricky event just before that would affect their own individual events. We had great ideas, went to different players with it, especially those that had been to the Olympics, get their feedback. They said, stick with what we’ve got.

OlympicTalk: The IOC might have been pretty open to a mixed team event because they’ve been adding mixed-gender events in other sports to the Olympics.

Scanlon: They certainly would have supported it if we could have fit it into those 16 days, but as it is, it’s a lot of golf for the players when you add that plus a full, 72-hole stroke-play event, and then following that a Ryder Cup, etc., toward the end of the season it starts to become too much golf for the players. And we thought it was best to capitalize on the success of what we had in Rio, really, and take it from there.

OlympicTalk: Tim Finchem said shortly after Rio that he wanted to “tweak the format” of Olympic golf. Was a team event or mixed-gender event what he was talking about?

Scanlon: Yeah. That’s pretty much around the time we were all meeting and talking about it. That was the challenge we put ourselves, and we still actually have that challenge. And that is to look for ways for us to have more opportunities for medals for the athletes. That surge will continue beyond Tokyo and through to Paris. If we can come up with preserving the 72-hole stroke play, which the players really support, to some other event. One suggestion, and this would mean the IOC having to really rethink their policies, is similar to the men’s World Cup [of Golf], where you used to have a team event in addition to an individual event.

Editor’s Note: In this scenario, golfers would not play multiple tournaments at the Olympics. Rather, their scores from the individual event would also count toward a team event. This was the 2013 World Cup of Golf’s format.

But the IOC currently doesn’t loop two events into one. Well, there is with gymnastics [qualifying scores count for advancement into team and individual finals]. There is with equestrian, but they’re trying not to do that. But who knows? The IOC is also evolving. They’re talking about esports now. This [scores counting for individual and team events] could be one way. That is one avenue we would explore for Paris [2024], see if that’s possible.

OlympicTalk: What about the makeup of the fields? Did you look at trying to ask the IOC for more spots in each field, or changing qualifying to let more golfers in from the top countries like the U.S. and England?

Editor’s Note: The U.S. has five of the top nine golfers in the men’s world ranking. South Korea has six of the top 13 women. A country can’t qualify more than four golfers into either Olympic men’s or women’s tournament.

Scanlon: The Olympics is about participation as well as winning medals. I really think that in Rio we got the balance between diversity of field and strength of field really well. As it is, the IOC allows us to have four per country as a maximum, where normally it would be three. So we have an exception there, similar to tennis. So if we go back to Rio, we had a total of 41 countries out of 120 athletes that we had in both the men’s and women’s fields. That’s pretty diverse, and it was a strong field. If you start to trick it up and reduce the number of countries that are participating, I think it takes something away. And one of the reasons why we’re part of the Olympic program is to widen our engagement of our sport to a bigger audience, and that was shown in Rio.

We’d love more athletes, but the reality with the IOC is no. We have stick with the 60 that we have with men and women.

OlympicTalk: Did you ask the IOC if you could have more athletes?

Scanlon: We actually did that before even Rio. We were looking for a field of, I think, 85, and they made a blanket rule of keeping the numbers the way they are [for 2020]. And I can see why because after our request, they admitted five extra sports through the [Tokyo 2020] organizing committee, which added extra athletes. I can see why they capped us.

OlympicTalk: What about adding Paralympic golf?

Scanlon: We’re bidding for Paris, an opportunity to have lower-limb amputees participate. We had some very good meetings with the [International Paralympic Committee] and have great support from all of our national federations and IGF membership for that. Our bid goes in, I think, the ninth of July, and, hopefully, come January next year we’ll get some positive news on that.

OlympicTalk: What are your thoughts on turnout from the top golfers after so many skipped Rio?

Scanlon: We’re constantly talking throughout with player liaisons and directly to the agents and the players. The players that weren’t there in Rio, and the reasons for it, I think some of them now regret that. I think Tokyo is a different landscape. It’s in the second-largest golf nation in the world. I think there’s great opportunity for the profile of our athletes to take that opportunity of being in Tokyo with that audience. I don’t see anything prohibiting any of the players coming this time.

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Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue can make it 10 straight at Skate America

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If Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue ever lacked motivation in the post-Olympic summer, they needed only scan their Montreal training ice.

They would spot France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the only ice dancers from the Olympic podium who return this season. Papadakis and Cizeron relegated the Americans to silver at March’s world championships, one month after Hubbell and Donohue were fourth in PyeongChang (the French took silver). They have trained under the same coaches in Quebec for three years.

They would also see Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the third- and fourth-place finishers from January’s U.S. Championships. Those couples moved to the Montreal group in the spring. They are Hubbell and Donohue’s top threats to repeat as national champions in Detroit in three months, given U.S. silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are also taking a break.

Practicing next to rivals is often shunned in sports. It has elevated ice dance the last several years.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White trained together in Michigan and split the Olympic gold and silver medals in 2010 and 2014.

When Virtue and Moir returned from a two-year break in 2016, they joined the Montreal group and went one-two with training partners Papadakis and Cizeron at every major competition through PyeongChang.

Hubbell and Donohue thrived last season, their third in Montreal, winning their first national title after six straight years of finishing third or fourth. They were in position for an Olympic medal, third after the short dance, but Donohue fell in the free dance (as he did at 2017 Worlds after they were third in the short).

Then at worlds in March, they delivered back-to-back podium-worthy performances on the global stage for the first time for that silver medal. They are the world No. 2 and the favorites at this weekend’s Skate America, with the French not in the field.

U.S. couples have won nine straight Skate Americas, more than the other three disciplines combined in the last decade.

MORE: Skate America TV/Stream Schedule

“Clearly this formula is working for them,” NBC Sports analyst and 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist Tanith White said. “It has proven to work for many of the greatest teams in ice dance over the last few decades. … I cannot see a drawback.”

Hubbell and Donohue (and Papadakis and Cizeron) appear to agree.

They joked back and forth at a press conference after worlds in March. Asked how they would spend the offseason, Cizeron looked straight at Hubbell and Donohue and said, jokingly, “Our goal is to get drunk together as many times as we can.”

“As much as our own personal accomplishment is pretty incredible, being on the podium with training mates and having, literally, everyone from our training center skate the best programs of their season, all at the same competition, was pretty incredible,” Donohue said last week.

Hubbell and Donohue should breeze through Skate America in Everett, Wash. Nobody else from the top nine in PyeongChang is in the field. They’re the favorites next week at Skate Canada, too.

The first real test will be at December’s Grand Prix Final, where Papadakis and Cizeron should join them. Hubbell and Donohue never outscored the French in nine head-to-head competitions and were more than 10 points adrift at worlds.

“The French, where they left off last season, I think that they are still in a category on their own based on the last time we saw those two teams go up against each other,” White said. 

Hubbell said the world silver medal showed that they had tackled their demons, fear and history of errors. If the next goal is gold, they must conquer a much more visible foe, one they see every day on the ice.

“The podium at worlds,” Hubbell said, “was the moment I was able to leave that season behind me and go into the future.”

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NHL helped end USA Hockey, women’s national team wage dispute

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The NHL’s support of women’s hockey included the league stepping in at the last moment to end a wage dispute between USA Hockey and national team players threatening to boycott the 2017 World Championship on home ice.

Two people familiar with the situation said the NHL agreed to pay USA Hockey to help fund the four-year agreement reached in March 2017. The people spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the league and USA Hockey have not made that information public.

The NHL also supports the idea of one women’s professional league and has several member teams involved in both leagues.

The Buffalo Sabres purchased the Buffalo Beauts in December to become the NHL’s first franchise to fully own an National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) team. The Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens each have partnerships with Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) teams based in their respective cities.

The NHL has been careful to avoid the appearance of favoring one league over the other. Commissioner Gary Bettman told the AP last month he has no interest in forming a third league because he doesn’t want the NHL “to look like a bully” by pushing the existing leagues out of business.

Players want a single North American women’s professional hockey league. Bettman does, too. And now NWHL founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan is on record saying she is working toward that objective.

“One league is inevitable,” Rylan wrote in an email to the AP, her strongest statement regarding a potential merger with the rival CWHL.

Rylan’s comments come nearly four years after she split from the CWHL to establish the NWHL, which became the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary.

The investor-funded NWHL has provided a framework for how a pro women’s league can function, but most observers agree that two leagues competing for the same talent pool and limited financial resources isn’t going to last — or help the game grow.

The U.S.-based NWHL, in its fourth season, grew to five teams after expanding into Minnesota this year. The CWHL, in its 12th season, began paying its players a salary for the first time last year and has six teams, including ones in Worcester, Massachusetts, and China.

Rylan is now echoing what Jayna Hefford said in July upon being named the CWHL’s interim commissioner. The former Canadian star called the formation of one league “a priority” and projected it could happen within two years.

Rylan’s comments also come after both leagues discussed merger options this summer, a person with direct knowledge of the discussions told The AP. Also on the table is an NWHL proposal for both league champions to compete in an end-of-season playoff, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Rylan confirmed she’s spoken to Hefford, and added: “There is a path, and Jayna and I and our business partners will continue those discussions.”

Hefford expressed cautious optimism regarding the possibility of joining forces.

“It’s certainly something we have to figure out,” she said, while noting she’s still new on the job. “I’m trying to understand what the challenges are, what the roadblocks are and try to figure out a way to get us to the point where we have one truly professional women’s hockey league.”

Hefford was scheduled to meet this week with NHL officials, including Bettman, for the first time since replacing former commissioner Brenda Andress.

Bettman is hesitant of the NHL assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL because, as he put it, “we don’t believe in their models.”

“We need to start on a clean slate,” Bettman said.

“If at some point the leagues say, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t see this as a long-term solution, we’d like you to start up and we’ll discontinue operations,’ then we’ll do it. But we’re not pushing it,” he said. “If we’re going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us.”

Rylan, who previously worked at the NHL, took exception to the comments.

“What’s it like when Gary Bettman tells the media the model for our women’s league doesn’t work? Of course, it’s really disappointing,” said Rylan, who nonetheless called Bettman a “gracious adviser.”

“Can we improve? No question about it,” she added. “If Gary and more NHL owners want to get involved in women’s hockey, that’s an awesome an exciting thing. Let’s get started now.”

Hayley Wickenheiser, a retired six-time Olympian and newly hired Maple Leafs assistant director of player development, said, “I think the NHL should and could do more and in a heartbeat make it happen.” But she placed more of an onus on the players to make it happen.

“They need to take control and move it forward, and the NHL is there and ready when they are,” said Wickenheiser, the first woman to be hired to a hockey operations role.

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