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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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MORE: After stars’ worry, Olympic golf to stay

Simone Biles routing field, edging note card at U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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BOSTON — Simone Biles leads the field by a whopping 3.1 points halfway through the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She beat the number at the bottom of the note card in her locker at the World Champions Centre in Texas by a much smaller margin.

No matter the perspective, Biles was more dominant on Friday night than during most of the Rio Olympic cycle. In just her second meet in two years. Nine months after returning to training after a 14-month break.

Biles tallied the highest score on every apparatus in the field and the world’s highest all-around score since Rio — 60.1 points. The second-highest score since Rio? Biles’ 58.7 from her comeback meet at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago.

“At Classics, I was still easing back into everything and kind of feeling the surroundings and getting used to competing again,” Biles, 21, said on the fifth anniversary of her first U.S. all-around title. “I feel like today I really embraced it.”

NATIONALS: Scores | TV/Stream Schedule

In the last Olympic cycle, Biles averaged a 1.94-point lead after the first day of nationals.

She rolls into the final day of competition Sunday, looking to become the first woman to win five U.S. all-around titles and the first non-teen to win since 1971. And send another message ahead of October’s world championships.

Morgan Hurd, who won the 2017 World all-around title in Biles’ absence, is in a distant second after four clean routines. The margin between Biles and Hurd is greater than the margin between Hurd and the eighth-place gymnast.

Asked to put her 60-pointer in perspective, Biles brought up the note card.

“I think it says 60 at the bottom,” said Biles, who hit 62.366 in Rio under a different scoring system.

Biles hit 60 points in a practice meet at her gym right before she left for the U.S. Classic. Her new coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, encouraged Biles to keep the visual reminder placed in her locker leading up to nationals.

“I wanted to show her that she could reach that score,” Laurent Landi said. “It’s not a big deal. If she does normal, she can be there.”

But nobody else can. Biles had 25.4 total points in difficulty on Friday. The next-highest gymnast (Hurd) had 22.7.

Biles essentially began the meet with a 2.7-point head start. She then was judged to have better overall execution than everybody else, even though she had the disadvantage of performing harder routines.

“She’s just mentally there,” said Riley McCusker, who led Biles going into the last rotation at the U.S. Classic and is in third place here. “She can take that time off and [be] physically there, too.”

BILES ROUTINES: Balance Beam | Floor Exercise | Uneven Bars | Vault 1 | Vault 2

Biles’ flaw in her comeback meet three weeks ago was the uneven bars. She fell trying a more difficult routine than in Rio.

On Friday, Biles nailed her bars set, receiving applause from Laurent Landi, who coached Madison Kocian to a bars silver in Rio.

Biles has never won a national title on bars. At the Olympics, she had the highest scores in the all-around on beam, floor and vault and the seventh-highest score on bars.

“She needs to go through more mental belief that she [belongs] at this level on the bars,” said Laurent Landi, a 40-year-old former French gymnast.

Landi insisted Biles was not at her best Friday. He noted her two overcooked tumbling passes on floor that cost her six tenths for going out of bounds. Imperfect landings on other events. He dismissed Biles’ lead and said he already has plans for upgraded routines before worlds, next year and possibly in the Olympic year.

“Sometimes when it’s difficult in the gym, we, my wife and I, try just to remind her who she’s trying to beat,” he said. “It’s herself.”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?

Laurie Hernandez faces big decisions before comeback

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BOSTON — Laurie Hernandez still hopes to compete in 2019, but she must find a coach and a gym first. And transition from conditioning to regular gymnastics training.

“Kind of dipping my toe in the water,” she said Friday at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, where she is strictly a spectator.

Hernandez hasn’t competed since earning team gold and balance beam silver in Rio. Other than Simone Biles, she is the only member of the Final Five openly expressing a desire to return to elite competition next year.

“Because I’m still passionate about it,” she said. “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always loved it, and I still do. It’s still really important to me.”

Hernandez said she has been on gymnastics equipment every so often but not consistently. She has said hello to new U.S. high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster.

She hopes to pick Aly Raisman‘s brain about coming back. Raisman took almost a year off after the 2012 London Games, then trained for a full year before returning to competition in March 2015.

Unlike Raisman, Hernandez said there is no unfinished business from the Olympics that motivates her.

“I know what I’m getting myself into,” Hernandez said. “It’s kind of like curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back. Being 16, being so curious, not really knowing what I’m walking into, that was such an interesting experience [in Rio].”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?