New Zealand’s Lydia Ko is utterly focused on turning her Rio 2016 silver into a gold in Tokyo next year, but for the golfing superstar the Olympic Games are about far more than just winning, and it is the prospect of experiencing that unique vibe once more which is making her smile.
“I love how the Olympics really celebrate each and every athlete,” Ko said. “You are a winner just being there for those two weeks. Sometimes with sport, results are the first thing that people look at and judge you from, but at the Olympics it is different. Even with the medal winners there are three of you, and I think that is a great thing. You don’t come second or third; you win a silver or a bronze medal.”
Ko is undoubtedly more aware than most that, as a professional sportswoman, she is firmly in the results business. The young New Zealander has lived a sizeable chunk of her life under the harsh gaze of the sporting press. She was just 17 years old when she first reached world No.1 – the youngest player, male or female, to achieve that feat – and she also holds the records for being both the youngest ever female major champion and the youngest LPGA tour winner. So, perhaps it is not surprising that the wider perspective on offer at the world’s biggest sporting spectacle is so attractive to her.
“I spent a day at the [Olympic] Village, and from gymnasts to basketballers you could really see how diverse sport is,” Ko commented. “It is not one shape or one type of person. It is just the whole world. It’s great that your ethnicity or your culture or what you look like or believe in is not what people judge you on. You are there just as people, as athletes representing your country. That is what it is all about, everybody becoming one because of the power of sport, because of how much they love their own sport and their country. The Olympic Games really embrace the meaning of sport itself.”
Ko arrived in Rio as the world No.1, but it is a position she has since relinquished after winning just once on the LPGA Tour since the end of 2016. However, as she looks towards Tokyo 2020 and more medal success, she knows she has a wealth of experience from her first Olympic foray to rely on.
“It was definitely one of the most special weeks in my entire life, not just in golf. When I think back to it, it gives me goosebumps,” Ko said with a smile. “I didn’t have the greatest of starts [she shot 69 and 70 in the opening two rounds to lie seven shots off the lead held by eventual winner Inbee Park, of the Republic of Korea] but with a really solid third round , I was able to put myself in contention. That was a big learning curve for me – that you never give up and you never know until the very end.”
Although she was never in genuine contention for the gold medal, after third-round leader Park powered away with four birdies in her first eight holes, Ko stuck to her task and, with a birdie on her very final hole, she beat China’s Feng Shanshan to the silver medal by one shot. The experience has made her even more determined to ensure she is in a similar position to challenge for glory once the eyes of the world turn towards the Kasumigaseki Country Club, outside Tokyo.
“Having played in one Olympics, I now understand why everyone works so hard to make sure that they are there and focuses for four years on trying to make sure they bring home a medal for their country,” Ko said. “I want to experience that whole Olympic vibe again.”
Ko rates her Rio performance as being equal, in a golfing sense, to her two major wins (2015 Evian Championship and 2016 ANA Inspiration), but far beyond both in terms of a life experience. This is primarily down to the heightened impact she now has as an Olympic medallist on the development of young people.
“It’s very cool when I go home and kids say, ‘Oh you are my role model’ or ‘I want to be like you one day’. That drives me to work harder and be that person that they can look up to,” she said. “If I can make a difference in one person’s life, inspire someone to take up the game, then it is a job well done on my part.”
While Tokyo 2020 remains more than a year away, Ko confirmed that the thoughts of the leading contenders on the LPGA Tour are starting to turn towards the Olympic rings. Qualification starts on 8 July this year; the top 15 in the world rankings come the end of June 2020 are guaranteed a spot, with a maximum of four golfers per National Olympic Committee (NOC). Beyond that, the rest of the field will consist of the best-ranked golfers, with a maximum of two per NOC that has not already filled its quota.
“Everyone is definitely preparing themselves to make sure they are there,” Ko said. “People try not to get too ahead of themselves, but the hype is building.”