The Buried History of Golf’s Return to the Olympics

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The Buried History of Golf’s Return to the Olympics

One hundred and twelve years ago, golfers were flocking to the state of Missouri for the 1904 St. Louis Summer Games, officially known as the Games of the III Olympiad. Back then, the Olympics were still relatively new. The Games were still being paired with the World’s Fair, which was undeniably everyone’s main interest. The Olympic events stretched out over months, and compared to today, they were an incredibly casual affair, where the wealthy and athletic could while away their time. The 1904 marathon, for example, presented the gold medal to a runner who spent half the race in a car, and the silver to a runner fueled by rat poison, egg whites, and brandy.

Golf was no different. St. Louis native Albert Lambert, founder of the company that created the popular mouthwash Listerine, won the handicapped event in the 1900 Paris Olympics inaugural golf events, simply because he had the free time during a Paris business trip at the same time. He reached out to his father-in-law Colonel George McGrew, who had founded his own golf club in St. Louis, to have the sport return in the next Olympics, which happened to be their hometown. They ensured golf’s return, with a long list of events that included “driving contests, putting contests at night under the lights, handicap events, flights for non-qualifiers and match-play losers, as well as team Nassau competitions.”

Four years later, the Olympics arrived in Stockholm, where golf had not yet become popular and where few courses were available for tournaments, and the sport disappeared from the Games after just two appearances. For the next few decades, there was never enough interest to compel Olympic organizers to bring it back—until 2009. Just a week after Rio de Janeiro won the bid for host city, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved golf’s inclusion, 63 votes to 27. There were six other sports that applied: rugby, karate, squash, softball, baseball and skating, but only golf and rugby made the cut. Their inclusion put the total number of sports at the former limit of 28, which the IOC unanimously changed in 2014 to a maximum of 10,500 athletes and 310 events.

The decision to re-include golf was motivated mainly by an interest in growing the sport. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem claimed the Olympics are “a platform that is unique in sport and one that we wanted to take advantage of.” The already intensive tournament schedule for professional golf saw many changes this year to accommodate the Olympics. The Open Championship will be July 14-17, as usual. The PGA Championship, however, is now taking place July 28-31, the earliest the tournament has been played since 1971. The Travelers Championship, originally in June, will now occur just days later, beginning August 4th. Rio’s Opening Ceremony will be August 5th, the Men’s event will be August 11-14, and the Women’s will be August 17-20. On top of all this, it is also a Ryder Cup year, which will take place from September 30-October 2, just a month after the Olympics ends.

The timeline is much easier to grasp in a calendar than a paragraph. But it’s clear that professional golfers have a lot on their plate, particularly with the advent of the FedExCup and the $67 million it offers. With so many of the biggest names announcing their decision against competing in Rio 2016, a discussion has emerged about the importance of supporting the sport. Adam Scott, former number 1 in the world, explained that his withdrawal was due to scheduling conflicts and professional commitments. Jack Nicklaus, the 18-time Major champion who played a significant role in golf’s re-inclusion to the Games, responded to Scott’s decision as “sad for the Olympics and sad for the game of golf.” But Scott is far from the only one disinterested in Rio 2016. On top of the demanding schedule, many pros are increasingly citing the Zika virus as a reason for withdrawal. Jason Day, Vijay Singh, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, and Shane Lowry are some of the biggest names in the sport, and they all withdrew from Olympic consideration due to fears over the virus.

Both concerns are more or less valid, and the Zika virus especially has become the go-to scapegoat for golfers hoping to skip Rio. However, one element of Olympic golf remains glaringly absent from discussion of the event: the course itself. Rio’s Olympic Golf Course was built in the Marapendi Natural Municipal Park, which has been an Environmentally Protected Area (APA) since 1978. Not only will it contribute to habitat loss and the disruption of ecosystems, but it continues a disturbing trend of prioritizing the Olympics at the expense of the environment, local communities, and government transparency. Some brief legal context is required to understand the full extent of the city’s evasion of the law for the course’s creation.

Brazil has passed extensive and complex environmental regulation in order to protect its natural landscape, which include some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. The terminology is laden with synonyms that have completely different implications. The category relevant to the construction of the Olympic Golf Course is the Areas of Ecological Interest and the Environmentally Protected Area (APA), a lower level tier that allows for mixed private/public ownership, but have strict sustainability requirements regardless. All decisions concerning the land must be made by a Council of public bodies, civil society organizations, and the resident population.

Most immediately associate Brazilian environmental regulation with the Amazon and the huge problems with deforestation and illegal land use, not without good reason. But another equally important region, which the Marapendi Reserve belongs to, is the Atlantic Forest or Mata Atlantica. Once twice the size of Texas at 120 million hectares, it now occupies less than 10 million hectares. The region hosts, in addition to one of the highest biodiversity indexes in the world, many of the country’s urban centers and roughly 62 percent of the nation’s population, which means the region also effectively produces 80 percent of national GDP. This human presence has been problematic because more than 80 percent of the Atlantic Forest is now in fragments smaller than 50 hectares, and such small habitats can be very challenging for animal populations, among the many other harmful influences of urban centers.

The original 1965 Forest Code required property owners to completely preserve a certain percentage of their land, ranging anywhere from 20 to 80 percent of property. Yet less than 10 percent of the Atlantic Forest remains today. The entire biome received specific attention in 2006 with the Atlantic Forest Law, which rendered the whole biome and everything within it a national patrimony and protected against future degradation. The Marapendi Reserve APA is composed of the Marapendi Lagoon and the Botanical Park & Zoo of Marapendi, and as of the 1992 ratification of Decree 10,368, both are Permanent Protection Areas. In addition to these layers of national and municipal protection, its official registration as a part of the Atlantic Forest biome makes it a registered UNESCO heritage site.

All this changed when Mayor Eduardo Paes sent Law Project 113 to the City Council, which was approved during a last minute session just before holiday recess in late December of 2012. On January 14, 2013, it become Complementary Law 125, which meant that:

1. Sustainable land-use guidelines, which intend to promote sustainable use of resources and protection of the biological diversity, were expanded to include the construction and maintenance of a golf course.

2. Borders of the Marapendi Reserve were redrawn, excluding most of the site of the future golf course from the protected zone.

3. Developer RJZ Cyrela was given the rights to construct 23 new 22-story luxury high-rises on the same piece of land, in exchange for funding the construction of the golf course. Previous zoning regulations limited construction to six-story buildings.

As the World Cup & Olympics Popular Committee of Rio de Janeiro explain in their dossier, “Rio 2016 Olympics: The Exclusion Games”, Complementary Law 125 directly transgressed the law in many ways. The legally required Environmental Impact Assessment was never publicly released, while the downgrading of formerly permanent protection areas infringed on the Federal Forestry Code, the Constitution of the State of Rio de Janeiro, and the Municipal Organic Law of Rio de Janeiro.

The Golfe pra Quem? (Golf for whom?) movement worked with the State Public Ministry to petition the Municipal Office of Environment and Culture (SMAC) and Fiori Empreendimentos, a close partner of RJZ Cyrela, for acknowledgement of these transgressions. When this request remained ignored months later, a Public Civil Action was filed by the Public Ministry in August 2014, aiming to revoke the project’s environmental licence and a suspension of the construction. Development continued unaffected, however, and an ‘expert report’ was released to support the builder’s claims.

The Marapendi region is home to 238 total registered species, many of which are both unique to the region and threatened, such as the white-sand-lizard, the Jacaré do Papo Amarelo, the broad-snouted caiman (Caiman latirostris), the armadillo, a rare species of beach butterfly, the sloth, and many more. According to biologist Marcello Mello, the construction project is “eliminating the salt marsh ecosystem… [causing] suppression and fragmentation of native vegetation, reduction of local biodiversity, resulting in the loss of habitat and native species of fauna and flora, including endangered species.” He describes the entire affair as a “scandal” and an “environmental crime.”

Not according to Olympic organizers. The project was justified by just the opposite: the claim that in the long-term, the course would actually contribute to the growth of local vegetation and animal populations. Rio 2016 sustainability coordinator Carina Flores claimed “the environmental gain [due to the course’s construction] in the region is visible. Besides the flora, which increased extensively, we can observe the different species of animals that have returned to the area.”

Furthermore, the Rio 2016 Olympic committee’s 2015 sustainability report explains that “roughly 70 per cent of the area was degraded or featured nonnative vegetation,” and claims the project would actually restore “44 hectares of native vegetation, so the terrain reaches 65 percent native vegetation, 30 percent lawns, and only a 5 percent building area.” An alleged 80 percent of the region was degraded from sand extraction and cement deposits in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The report not only cites a 167 percent increase in vegetation, but the discovery of 145 new species, indicating 263 in total.

Marcus Leal, representative for the Public Ministry of the State of Rio de Janeiro, argued that these new discoveries only occurred because the original inventory of species was not done properly. “There are records of endangered species identified on site by technicians of the municipality, that were not listed in the inventory held by the company responsible. This is irrefutable, documented evidence” that dismisses their methods, he says.

This is not the only disproven claim. The same report presented on behalf of the developers in response to the Public Ministry’s civil lawsuit was analyzed and completely rejected by biologists. The entire premise of environmental degradation was denied, demonstrating instead that in reality, 60 percent of that land had been preserved, while the other 40 percent was actively recovering. The report continued on to note that golf courses do not have the best track record for environmental impact. Most require invasive, nonnative grasses that require maintenance reliant on chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, as well as the routine use of heavy equipment. None of this is conducive to wildlife.

The controversy only grows with knowledge that Rio already had two golf courses, that have operated for decades. The Itanhangá Golf Club, founded in 1935, was the prime choice because it is located in the main neighborhood for Olympic development, Barra da Tijuca. They entered their course into the bid for hosting the event, but were denied the opportunity. The IOC justified the denial of both existing golf courses because they claimed extensive remodeling would have been necessary, yet Assistant Manager of Golf and Tourism in Barra da Tijuca, Corina Barcellos, claimed the club completely understood that remodeling was necessary. While it would have been inconvenient, they were excited at the opportunity, and beyond willing to reshape the course. He ascribed the decision to “just politics.”

Further investigation shows that an international contest organized by the Brazilian Institute of Architects for the golf course project began as early as July 2012, more than six months before the (albeit erroneous) legal means to develop Marapendi were granted through Law Project 113. Worse still, the contest had already publicized Marapendi APA as the location for construction.

Even the project’s accurate claims are still problematic. Designed by Gil Hanse, the course will be 970,000m² wide and space for up to 15,000 fans. After the Games, the course will be “used as a public facility, with the chief purpose of promoting golf in Brazil”, according to the IGF. It is important to note, however, that although the apartments constitute just five percent of the developed land, they will be a hugely significant source of revenue. Neighboring luxury apartment complex Riserva Uno will have a minimum price over R$6 million ($2.8 million USD) for just one of its units, and a basic floor plan of 266 square meters (2,850 square feet). The entire complex will host tennis courts, a golf simulator, a dance studio, and every building will have a swimming pool. One of the towers will feature a 3-bedroom, 1,308 m², (14,100 sq ft) penthouse that will be serviced by six elevators.

The actual course is no different. Golf course architect Jim Engh explains that the median cost for the complete construction of an 18-hole golf course “is around $4.5 million. Anything above $5 million is considered ‘high end.’ ” Rio’s Olympic Golf Course, by comparison, will cost a whopping $26.8 million USD. Former president of the City Secretary of the Preservation of Cultural Patrimony Andréa Redonde admits that “the [city’s] discourse is very seductive, but the project is just a real estate tool at its core.”

This high-end attitude is not uncommon for the region. The course is located in Barra da Tijuca, a neighborhood characterized by wealthy gated communities, and the Olympics have contributed to this development on many fronts. The Athlete’s Village, for example, is also destined to transform into still more luxury apartments. Real estate mogul Carlos Carvalho is one of the big reasons this segregation culture exists. He owned six million square meters (roughly 8,000 soccer fields) of land within the neighborhood before Rio won the Olympic bid; his already significant wealth skyrocketed, and he made it clear he wanted not only to make more money, but to change the city. In an article in The Guardian, the author explains that “Carvalho insists the quality of the accommodation must match the tone of a valuable, privileged area.” Carvalho himself does not refrain from sharing his complete vision, idealizing the apartments as “noble housing, not housing for the poor,” with interior gardens “at a level that only kings had.” He dreams of Barra as “a beautiful new Rio de Janeiro.” Even the name of the Athlete’s Village, Ilha Pura, or ‘Pure Island’, is unapologetically elitist.

The Olympic Golf Course is hardly the first instance of environmental neglect, nor the first construction project that lacks public opinion. And urbanization in Barra da Tijuca has been wreaking havoc on the lagoon ecosystems for decades. Regardless, the course adds a tally to a long list of human and environmental rights violations in pre-Olympic Rio. There is no shame in enjoying the tournament, as a fan or a professional, but the huge absence of any public discussion about the course’s creation continues the very dangerous precedent of Olympic developments being completely exempt from existing legislation. The ‘state of exemption’, or more accurately, the “state of financial calamity,” is no excuse for the city government to trample long-established legal protections that guard an ecological treasure. The course can’t be unmade, but the organizers can still acknowledge their blatant wrongdoings and work to sustain the integrity of environmental law. Golf has already secured a spot in Tokyo 2020; the original purpose of promoting the sport could benefit from distinguishing this political misconduct from the sport itself.

Or at the very least, they could plan something more exciting than a painfully unoriginal, 72-hole individual stroke play tournament.