Nick Bonfield analyses the spate of of recent Olympic withdrawals and asks whether the Zika virus is the main reason behind golf's top stars pulling out
Well, it’s been another week of exiting. Not from the EU this time, but instead by golfers who don’t feel comfortable making the trip to Rio de Janeiro to take part in the Olympic Games.
It’s more than a shame. It remains to be seen whether golf’s reputation will be irreparably tarnished – we’d need a riveting tournament in Rio to guarantee that doesn’t happen – but it certainly gives more credence to the popular view that golf shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Many argued it should be a showcase for the amateur side of the sport. The great irony is that notion was rejected in order for the world’s best players to compete on the global stage.
To date, Vijay Singh, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Shane Lowry, Branden Grace, Marc Leishman, Graeme McDowell and Miguel Angel Jimenez have withdrawn. Jordan Spieth is seriously considering whether to follow suit.
Related: Exclusive Rory McIlroy interview
Most of them have pulled out due to concerns about the Zika virus. Those of a more cynical disposition will argue it’s a convenient excuse; others will say it’s a perfectly legitimate reason for withdrawal.
Here’s the issue: it IS a perfectly legitimate reason for withdrawal, and therein lies the problem.
Who are we to argue with the likes of McIlroy and Lowry, who are putting their family first? It’s what any decent human being would do. We can’t see into their hearts and minds and ascertain whether that’s the main reason for them not wanting to play in Rio. We also can’t ask them if it’s a good cover-up excuse – even though the risk of contracting the virus is very low, and lowering all the time – because it’s distasteful to ask someone if they are using family as an alibi.
The fact is that the Olympics in Rio are shrouded in controversy. There are genuine concerns about security; the police have only been paid up until the end of the week; those on the ground say the infrastructure is a nightmare. Add that to a congested schedule, concerns about Zika and the fact a Gold Medal is in no way comparable to any of golf’s four Majors and you can see why so many of the game’s starts are opting out.
Other reasons put forth have been the lack of a prize pool and issues with players not being able to wear their sponsors’ garments. While I see these as subsidiary factors, they may influence some. All I’ll say is it’ll be interesting to see how many of the Zika withdrawees have children over the next year or so.
What’s curious is the fact that not a single female golfers has withdrawn from the Olympic competition. Here’s my theory on that: the Games provide a great opportunity for exposure and brand extension. For many of the men, there’s nothing to be gained by going to Rio. That might strike you as a short-sighted view, but let’s not forget the individual nature of top-tier professional golf. For women’s golf, a sport in dire need of a boost, it’s an opportunity that can’t be missed.
Only a handful of other athletes from other disciplines have pulled out of the Games, and the majority of those have come from basketball – a sport with some parallels to golf when it comes to questions over Olympic inclusion.
What is disappointing is the failure of many to recognise the game is bigger than them – the likes of Scott and Schwartzel. They may not feel it deserves to be there, but so many people have worked tirelessly to ensure it is, it’s an amazing platform to promote the game and it’s a great opportunity to represent your country in a sport which rarely affords such an opportunity.
Maybe the game’s governing bodies should have awarded world ranking points as an incentive, but they clearly thought it wasn’t necessary. National pride and a sense of duty to the game, they reasoned, would be sufficient.
I asked Danny Willett earlier this week if he thought the Zika virus was a convenient excuse. He thought that was a bit harsh. I disagree. I’ve also spoken to another couple of players, who will remain nameless, who are on my side.
In McIlroy’s press conference ahead of the French Open, he said “I play four Olympics each year. You grow up dreaming of Claret Jugs and Green Jackets, not Gold Medals.”
That, I’m afraid, is the bottom line.