Rory McIlroy had a potential out from golf’s Olympic return from the moment that landmark decision was voted through in 2009. The delicacy of a Northern Irish sportsman, not least one as high-profile as McIlroy, having to declare for an Irish or British Olympic team meant the option of passing up the 2016 Games entirely was initially a live prospect.
Instead, McIlroy declared two years ago this month that he would represent Ireland. The four-time major winner’s sentiment then is worth reflecting on, after his statement on Wednesday morning that he will not travel to Rio after all due to health fears over the Zika virus. Just as McIlroy is not prone to shirking decisions, he is clearly capable of a consequential change of heart.
“It would have been an easy way out for me [not to play] but I thought about the good of golf,” McIlroy said in 2014. “This is the first time golf has been in the Olympics for a long time and if the best players aren’t there, supporting the event and competing in it, then what’s the point? I feel like I have a responsibility to grow the game, as part of a group of players who can spread this game throughout the world.”
The accusations in some quarters now will be that McIlroy never had any interest in the Olympics. If so, why go to the hassle of making a tricky personal decision before offering an endorsement as above? Why wait until now to pull out? It would be a rather convoluted, needless way of dodging something. Adam Scott was an Olympic objector from the start and made no secret of it; McIlroy’s situation has clearly been different.
For starters, he rightly regards himself as an athlete. The opportunity to mingle with others held appeal. Does McIlroy lack commitment to Ireland? Not if the total rejuvenation of the Irish Open, with McIlroy taking the lead, is anything to go by. His home open looks like being a real professional legacy.
This decision not to play in Brazil would have been especially troublesome for McIlroy on two fronts. Paul McGinley, Ireland’s golf team leader for the Olympics, is held in huge esteem by the 27-year-old. The concept of disappointing McGinley wouldn’t sit well with McIlroy, who retains more of a conscience than many others at the pinnacle of sport. “Paul is a very close friend of mine and if I didn’t play I’d let him down big time,” McIlroy said only last month.
The second point relates to that broader golf issue to which McIlroy himself referred. McIlroy is a standard bearer and poster boy for his sport. He takes that responsibility seriously. McIlroy’s absence from the Olympics unquestionably harms the scene, a matter rendered even more acute by the uncertainty surrounding golf’s involvement beyond 2020.
McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth have played such a huge part in taking golf into a post-Tiger Woods era. With that comes a wider responsibility and implication for every action. It seemed certain in 2009 that the Olympics partly wanted golf to capitalise on the Tiger factor. The baton has passed on, with McIlroy in the vanguard.
McIlroy’s move touches on the very issue of whether or not golf should be part of the Olympic equation. He has been criticised already by a boxer and a pentathlete, for whom the Olympics are a holy grail. Blatantly, golfers will never have the same lifelong ambition or attachment. This means, following logic, they will be less inclined to place themselves in any health or security danger; the latter has been raised continually in golfing circles with the same regularity as Zika. Golfers can and will move on to the next tournament, including majors which will always be held in far loftier esteem than the Olympics. That status disparity may change over time but there is no indication of that for now.
Golf and Rio have been entwined in a routine public-relations disaster. This started with epic wrangling over the construction of the venue itself and has now led to a batch of players – the number is certain to increase – thinking better of attending. At the Players Championship last month two professionals, Graham DeLaet and Caroline Masson, were placed on a podium and asked to chat through all that was good about Olympic golf. This was stunted, desperate stuff; the narrative had long since swung in an alternate direction. “I think we are on a good track,” Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour’s chief executive, said. With a straight face, as well.
On Wednesday, as news of McIlroy’s decision broke, the International Golf Federation issued its latest bland statement citing an “unfortunate” scenario. That body, which is overseeing golf’s Games participation for the first time since 1904, has failed horribly in its remit either to convince players that Rio will be perfectly safe or to produce viable alternative plans. Discord hasn’t hit the IGF all of a sudden yet their response has proved lamentable. Even the lack of available information cited by McIlroy, Danny Willett, Rickie Fowler and others doesn’t look altogether clever.
McIlroy will receive flak before carrying on with his career. He has done likewise before, after all. His issue rather touches on a pivotal, wider point: the validity of Olympic golf. Without marquee names, an already flimsy case for inclusion is weakened further.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010