Jason Day’s Zika withdrawal highlights golf’s vexed Olympic relationship

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Given the chance to play golf for Australia at the Games of the XXXIst Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, I – and it’s my guess that you – would fairly leap at it.

Actually I wouldn’t need to leap because I’d already be over there, in Rio, in my green-and-gold Footjoys, taking divots out of the spanking new, purpose-built Olympic course. And for a couple of vainglorious weeks I would proudly chop it about for Australia and no mosquito-borne virus would deter me.

But then I am not having any more children. And I am also not extremely good at golf. Unlike Jason Day who is ridiculously good at golf and wants to have more kids. And like Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy (ranked fourth) and Branden Grace (12th) of South Africa – and a list of others that doesn’t (yet?) include Jordan Spieth – Day has decided that competing in Rio with Zika-laden mosquitos zapping about is not worth the risk.

It’s another dagger in the heart of golf’s vexed – and it seems hexed – inclusion in the Olympics. There’s been critique of the generic four-round stroke competition format over a Ryder Cup or Walker Cup-style teams event. There’s a question why it’s contested by professionals and not amateurs. Plenty wonder why golf is even in the Olympics given it, like tennis, already has four Major championships considered more important. There’s a dozen other fair arguments against golf in the Olympics yet all ultimately lost out, as fair arguments can, in the face of an overwhelming amount of money.

The golf industry (estimated value $70 billion) is made up of equipment-makers, course designers and the Mars Bar seller at your local club. And the golf industry wants golf in the Olympics to advertise the game to growing middle-class markets around the world. So that’s why golf’s in the Olympics. Money.

But the world’s best golfers have plenty of money and care more for their health and hence their ability to make more money. The elite pros also understand the golf business. They know that their appearance will make money for someone. That’s why they are paid appearance money. Yet at the Olympics they don’t get any, which might be fine for some players, like Day. “It has always been a major goal to compete in the Olympics,” he said. But it’s possible for others it grates that broadcasters – and the somewhat-tainted organisation that is the IOC – will rake in a motza broadcasting them playing golf at the Olympics.

The world No1 has brushed Rio as the world number eight, Adam Scott, brushed it before him. Both have their reasons. Day cited Zika; Scott his “scheduling” coupled with a long-held view that golf shouldn’t be in the Olympics.

Now, I am not Jason Day. And chances are you are not Jason Day. And the millions of Twitter people foisting an opinion about Day and Grace and McIlroy, and all the rest of the Rio renegers, labelling them “coddled” and “precious” and “scared of a little mozzie bite on the same day Mick Fanning jumped back in the surf where he was bitten by a shark”, they, too, are not Jason Day. Only Jason Day walks in Jason Day’s shoes. Only Jason Day knows the advice Jason Day has received. And only Jason Day is married to Ellie Day.

Day did want to play golf for Australia at the Olympics. He was going to. But someone – and with all Day’s resources you’d assume the person(s) would be among the leading experts in the field – has told him that there is a risk of the virus entering his bloodstream and semen, and that there is a risk that it could transfer to his wife when they attempt to have more children.

How great a risk? How long is a piece of string? Is any risk too much? What about if it was 100-1, would you go? How about 1000-1? Day is 28 years old. He has two young children and wants to have more. How much more important a thing is there in a man’s life than the health of his future children? That’s primal stuff. What’s more important? Why take any risk?

The boffins at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that “Zika virus spreads to people primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito. People can also get Zika through sex with an infected man, and the virus can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her foetus.

“The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito. People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realise they have been infected.

“However, Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as other severe foetal brain defects. Once a person has been infected, he or she is likely to be protected from future infections.”

So there you go. You’d probably rather not have the Zika virus. And you absolutely wouldn’t if you’re looking to have more children. And perhaps it’s a very small risk either way. Or perhaps it’s a relatively large one, it depends who you ask. Ask Ellie Day why they’d hold the Games in the viral epicentre of the Americas. And ask Scott – and just about everyone else you talk to about golf in the Olympics – if golf should be in the Olympics.


Of course like most of those criticising Scott and Day and company for not travelling to Rio, I really have no idea what they’re thinking. It’s hard to empathise. I’m a 46-year-old 8-handicapper from the northern beaches of Sydney. My weekly battle with the golf course is about scratching my way to 36 points and winning a ball in the stableford comp.

For Day and Scott golf could be about adding millions to their investment portfolio and buying Learjet fuel and promoting the game to untold millions around the world and winning trophies and sponsorship and whatever else drives these elite golfers of the world.

When Scott cites “schedule” it means he’s got every week of his year planned in advance. His whole year is mapped out around doing well in Major championships. He’s 35 years old. He’s got maybe eight years of prime time left. He also has a young family that a peripatetic golfer would see rarely enough as is.

Yet for mine it’s hard to absolutely empathise with Scott and others who’ve cited “scheduling” as their reason for not playing golf at the Olympics – surely you could fit the week in. Because – the Olympics! Whatever you think about golf being there, it is there. And you could play golf for Australia at the Olympics. And you’d think a gold medal would hang pretty nicely next to a green jacket in the pool room.

Maybe we’ll find out in Japan 2020.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Matt Cleary, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 29th June 2016 21.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010