(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Opinion: 2020 Olympic golf venue is the latest example of gender inequality in the sport

In March, Kasumigaseki Country Club announced that its executive board had voted to change its membership policy concerning women. Normally the inner workings of an exclusive golf club in Saitama, Japan might not make for international news, but Kasumigaseki had spent the past few months under intense scrutiny for two things: its rules barring women from becoming full members, and its status as the future venue for the men’s and women’s golf tournaments at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Now that the golf club says it will accept women in response to mounting criticism from public officials and the International Olympic Committee. Just a few days before the vote, IOC President Thomas Bach publicly warned Kasumigaseki officials that a refusal to change would mean a new golf venue for the Tokyo Games.

But Kasumigaseki was chosen by the Tokyo Organizing Committee to be an Olympic venue in 2013, as part of its bidding process to host the 2020 Games. Why had this only become an issue for the IOC now? Tamayo Marukawa, Japan’s Olympic minister, has demanded more transparency about the process involved in Kasumigaseki’s selection, but clearly something went awry and the selection process of golf courses for the Olympics needs to be updated.

The course, which was selected in 2014, has hosted more top-level tournaments than any other course in Japan, including the Japan Women’s Open in 1999. But when the International Olympic Committee inquired about the membership practices of the club a few months ago, they learned that it did not meet the IOC’s mandates of gender equality.

Kasumigaseki previously allowed women, just not as full-participating members. This meant women could only play Monday through Saturday, but were banned from playing on Sundays and receiving full access to other club facilities. When this was brought to light, Kasumigaseki came under fire.

After the IOC told Kasumigaseki to change its membership policy, the change was met with hesitation. When the 15 person board at Kasumgaseki met to vote to allow women fully into the club, people on the board were divided. Kiichi Kimuira, board chairman said, “That this situation has developed is a nuisance for us, it’s really perplexing.”

Kiichi Kimura, chairman of the board of Kasumigaseki Country Club, speaks to reporters in Tokyo in February.

While Kasumigaseki has since amended its policy, Kimuira is right to be perplexed by the entire situation. Their membership policies were not top secret. The IOC simply had to ask about the clubs membership practices beforehand. This seems like it would be standard protocol before saying, “Hey, we’d like you to host a worldwide golf event and give you the accolade of being a golf course worthy of the Olympics.”

Andy Yamanaka, the Executive Director of the Japanese Golf Association, expressed disappointment before the vote and at the prospect of the course losing the Olympics.

“We feel very disappointing with the situation as we thought the club was officially approved by IGF (International Golf Federation) and IOC through the Tokyo Candidates Committee based on the documents submitted by the club and with verbal explanations made by us. At this stage, we hope the club will voluntary amend the rule under the current trend of global gender issue.”

But despite being familiar with Kasumigaseki’s membership policies, the JGA recommended the club and chose not to disclose this information in the beginning.

Nicki Hirayama, who represents the IGF and JGA, defended the club’s policies stating, “The Club has its policy that the members interact as family, promote game of golf, coexist with local community; female members are treated very well, participating in each committee to help the operation of the Club, ladies have their own competitions and there is no discriminatory issue practically on day to day activities.”

Key word there: practically.

Currently Kasumigaseki Country Club has 220 female members, either as weekday or family members. This point has been used to highlight, “See, they don’t hate women. See, they have some rights.”

But even with its recent membership changes, Kasumigaseki still does not deserve to host the Olympics. Between the hesitancy of the club wanting to adjust its rule and its practices of how they regard women as members, a simple change of vernacular does mean a change of attitude.

Why reward a golf course who clearly is not with the modern times on gender equality just because they succumb to pressure? This would be like giving your boyfriend immunity from previously cheating on you just because he agreed to be faithful after you caught him.

Forcing a club to change its behavior does not mean the club will suddenly start admitting women as full members. Like any private club, they can still be nitpicky and decide if a woman is not good enough to be a full member. Their policies may change, but it does not necessarily mean the practices will.

[More from Excelle Sports: Many female athletes don’t fully understand Title IX and that’s a real problem.]

One only needs to look at Augusta National. The course, which was built in 1933, had a clear policy that women and African Americans were not welcomed to become members of the club. Then, after public scrutiny, Augusta admitted their first black member in 1990 and finally its first female member in 2012. Currently, there are six black members and three female members of the 300 members at the club.

The only semi-acceptable way to circumvent this would be to require the club to admit a certain number of full-female members before the Olympics in 2020. Even then, the club would only have women as full-members in a way to benefit itself through the prestige of hosting the Olympics.

But since Kasumgaseki will still be the host course, it raises other issues the golf world already faces in terms of gender equality. The Professional Golf Association (PGA) of America did not allow women to be members until 1970 after the PGA was founded in 1912. As a result of the historically discriminatory policies, the PGA of America only has 1,700 female professionals as members, compared to 27,000 PGA of America male golf professionals to date. This means less female representation at golf courses, resulting in less concern for inclusive policies and practices for women in golf in general.

For what it’s worth, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan has trumpeted his organization’s efforts in trying to solve that problem, predicting that the LPGA/USGA joint “Girls Golf” youth program will introduce 100,000 young girls to the sport annually by 2020.

Currently, Japan has the second largest golf economy in the world, behind the U.S. But of the 10 million golfers in Japan, only 1% of Japanese women in their 20s play, compared to 6% of men in Japan. Golfers in the 60s and 70s, (mostly men) make up more than half of the golfing population in Japan. Of the approximately 2,350 courses nationwide in Japan, around 10 clubs limit access to women to become full members.

This means men still control the golf market in Japan, and that golf there, just like in the U.S., has a long way to go to make women feel included in order to increase female representation in the sport. With these stats at hand, it makes one question even further why the IOC did not fully educate themselves on the membership practices of Kasumgaseki at the beginning of the selection process.

The answer likely rests in the female representation on the IOC Executive Board: There are twelve men and three women.

As for the gender disparity on the IOC Commissions? Only seven women fill the 28 positions.

With this information at hand, it should surprise no one that a male majority ran organization (who claims to uphold the tenets of gender equality) never thought to ask about the gender practices of a club.

In the 2020 Olympic Agenda, the IOC released 40 recommendations to help improve what they called the “Olympic Movement.” Recommendation 11 calls to foster gender equality with the goals of:

  1. The IOC to work with the International Federations to achieve 50 per cent female participation in the Olympic Games and to stimulate women’s participation and involvement in sport by creating more participation opportunities at the Olympic Games.
  2. The IOC to encourage the inclusion of mixed-gender team events.

In this recommendation they fail to think of the fact that facilities where they may hold events (like golf courses) may not have the same gender equality agenda the IOC claims to strive for.

Perhaps the IOC will use this experience to learn that not all places welcome women as freely as they welcome men. The IOC could have easily found another host course in Tokyo who does so. By moving to a different venue right away the IOC would never had to make a club change its policies that it had no interest in changing.

Though Kasumigaseki has changed its policy, it will remain a sore spot for the club forced to change its policies. Once again controversy is the center of attention in women’s sports, rather than the skill and performance, ensuring this will most certainly be a bigger topic of conversation during the Olympics than the players themselves.

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