Last week, Rory McIlroy announced that he would not be representing Ireland in the golf competition at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August. “I have come to realise that my health and my family’s health comes before anything else,” he said. “Even though the risk of infection from the zika virus [a large concern in Brazil right now] is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take.”
Do you recall the original kerfuffle over whether Rory might represent Britain or Ireland in the Olympics, that being before the R&A stepped in and saved him the agony by pronouncing him definitely Irish in this circumstance? Well that was a waste of time! McIlroy also said: “I trust the Irish people will understand my decision.” The 27-year-old and his fiancée, Erica Stoll, may be contemplating starting a family at some point and zika has been linked to defects in new-born babies, so it would take a hard heart to judge him too harshly.
But some have, criticising his failure to see the bigger picture for the sake of a sport from which he has enjoyed such lavish rewards. This year is the first time golf has been in the Olympics for over 100 years. It may not matter much in countries like the UK (although for how much longer that might exist as an entity gives pause for thought!) or the USA but in other countries, including throughout Western Europe, golf is only now getting government funding – because it has become an Olympic sport. That guarantee lasts only until 2020. A lacklustre turnout by the game’s leading men players this summer might lead to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) reaching a decision next year that Tokyo 2020 will see the sport’s Olympic demise, just four years after its modern-era debut.
Tennis didn’t do too well star-wise on its introduction to the Olympics in 1988 but it has done very strongly in latter years and all the top names will be there this year. The IOC administrators may not take such a generous long-term view with golf. But then golf was only ever invited to rejoin the party because at that time Tiger Woods was the pre-eminent sports person on earth. (Bizarrely, golf’s addition to the roster happened a month before Tiger drove his car into that hydrant in 2009.) The authorities cannot be looking at how this is unfolding and feeling happy about it.
Asked about his position in 2014, McIlroy said: “If I made that decision [not to participate in the Olympics] it would have been a very selfish decision.” Golf, of course, is a selfish game. Branden Grace withdrew the day after McIlroy did. Graeme McDowell, McIlroy’s intended replacement, also declined to go, citing the fact that his wife was expecting their second child around that time. Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Vijay Singh had previously announced their absence. No one would bet a fortune on Jason Day, Jordan Spieth or Danny Willett all being there, teeing it up on August 11.
The bottom line is that golfers may not understand the enjoyment to be found from mingling in the athletes’ village with the likes of Usain Bolt (OK, granted there is no one like Usain Bolt) but they do know that Olympic gold is not the highest honour in their sport. Once you’re reached that thought, giving up on the Games probably doesn’t seem so difficult.
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen