One year later: Olympic course defies the odds

Golfers play on Rio's Olympic course in late-November 2016. (Getty Images)

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Each morning on his way to work Marcio Galvão drives by the vacant sports arenas in Rio’s Olympic Park and the 3,600 empty apartments in the boarded-up Olympic Village.

Like most Brazilians who expected so much more from the 2016 Olympic Games, the first held in South America, it makes Galvão’s heart sink.

“It’s a disaster, a disaster,” he says. “From a Brazilian perspective, it’s a shame, because it’s a kind of incompetence from the governance.”

It also serves as a daily reckoning of how crucial Galvão’s job is, not just to golf in Brazil but to the ultimate legacy of the ’16 Games.

Those who know him call Galvão a “serious guy,” although the 67-year-old’s infectious smile and quick laugh suggest otherwise. In July, he took the job as CEO of the Rio Olympic Golf Course with what he calls an “ambition-driven approach,” which he explains is a concept born from a lifetime in the world of finance.


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Simply put, Galvão’s plan for the build-it-and-they-will come Olympic layout is to “create a dream and ambition that’s sustainable.” It’s a lofty goal by any standard, but particularly in Rio where the government declared a state of financial emergency in 2016 and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison last month.

But for Galvão failure truly isn’t an option, not with such absolute consequences.

“When the Olympic Games ended we made an effort with the company that developed the course. At that time it was very simple, if we close one week we would lose $20 million,” he says, explaining that if maintenance at the Gil Hanse-designed layout stops for a week the financial reality is that the cash-strapped consortium that now runs the complex wouldn’t be able to bring it back to anything close to playable conditions.

Perhaps more importantly, golf in Brazil would lose what former Brazilian Golf Confederation president Paulo Pacheco called a “gift from God.”

One year ago, not long after the echoes of the closing ceremony at Maracanã Stadium had drifted into the mountains, the Rio course was turned over to the country’s golf confederation. The turmoil that followed was both painful and predictable.

An Agence France-Presse report last November described a layout overgrown with natural vegetation and nearly devoid of players. But as the anniversary of that historic hand-over passes it appears the rumors of the layout’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

“The visions of an Olympic course that was going to be overgrown and left to waste didn’t occur. There seems to be a genuine desire to create white elephants when the Olympics are over,” says Mark Lawrie, the R&A’s director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

In April, when Lawrie returned to the Rio course, he found a much different reality. Although he admits the volume of play hasn’t been what officials hoped for, the course itself remains playable with conditions Galvão contends are better than what the world’s best competed on for medals a year ago.

“It’s one of the great legacies that has come from the Games,” says AntonyScanlon, the executive director of the International Golf Federation, which oversees golf in the Olympics. “I know the Brazilian Olympic Committee is proud and trying to change the wrong message from December that the course was closed and a white elephant. We’re seeing some regular use of the course and regular maintenance of the course and it’s becoming a great story from the Games, and who would have thought that when you figured the five-, six-year build that we had and the humps we had leading up to that.”

Even more encouraging, Galvão has a 10-year plan to not just keep the course financially viable but to fulfill the lofty legacy of becoming a beacon for golf in a country that has just 9,202 registered golfers and 120 courses.

Currently, the course averages about 700 rounds a month, a number Galvão hopes to double by the end of the year. The plan is for some of that growth to come from tourism, with about 15 percent of the current play coming from foreigners.


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The remainder of that growth will be homegrown via an ambitious green-grass plan that begins in elementary school.

“We have to implement the golf legacy from the Games. We need to increase the number of golfers through social inclusion,” Galvão says. “It’s important to have a partnership between the public and the private school to bring kids to the course.”

Every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon, Galvão and his staff offer free lessons to new players, both children and adults, on the Rio course practice range. Players graduate to the small four-hole course from there. Galvão says those clinics are currently fully booked, a sign, however anecdotal, that despite the public perception of golf being only for the elite, there is at least a passing interest in the game.

Galvão is also creating what he calls a golf scholarship program, which he envisions expanding to 300 juniors via funding from corporate donations. Like many things in Rio, it’s a barter concept – sponsor a junior’s membership in exchange for a corporate membership at what is Rio’s only public course.

Along those same inclusive lines, the plan is to create a technical school to help train young adults for a career in the golf industry by allowing them to work at the Olympic course.

“In Brazil it is very important to create this atmosphere of golf not being an elite sport. It’s to help make more inclusion,” Galvão says.

Galvão’s optimism is contagious and he’s confident his plan, which he will present to the IGF and R&A later this month, is a rare mix of financial responsibility and social activism, but the challenges he and his staff face can’t be ignored. He sees them every morning on his drive to work.

Green fees for foreigners at the Olympic course are about $150, a reasonable sum for a tourist to play the same course where Justin Rose won a gold medal, but resident rates range from about $75 on the weekend to $50 on a weekday, which are both outrageous sums for a country where the average monthly salary is $678.

“I would say a little bit,” Galvão concedes when asked if those green fees might be too expensive.

But with no chance of financial support from the government, at this point the optimist in Galvão defers to the businessman. Fulfilling its role as a catalyst to grow the game in Rio will always be the course’s primary legacy. But to do that officials must keep the doors open and the grass cut.

“We are very proud. Two years ago nobody believed that golf would succeed in the Games. Nobody believed that the golf course would continue to be open to the public. So, we had success during the Games, from public, from marketing, every aspect; and we’re very proud that we kept the golf course open,” he says. “We’ll make this happen, no doubt. It will take some work, of course, but we’ll make it happen.”

Galvão sees the painful alternative far too often as he drives around Rio in the deserted and decaying venues from last year’s Games, but failure at the Olympic course is not an option.