McIlroy reportedly changed his mind in the past week, and the reason for his withdrawal – uncertainty over the Zika virus – will pave the way for other top-ranked players to drop out, as well. World No. 1 Jason Day, two-time major winner Jordan Spieth, the hugely popular Rickie Fowler and Masters champion Danny Willett are among those who have already publicly expressed concerns about traveling to Rio de Janeiro. McIlroy’s about-face will only make their decision easier.
Would several key absences diminish the Games? Absolutely. It certainly wasn’t what officials had in mind when golf was voted (63-27) into the Olympic program in 2009.
But circumstances change, and the past few years have been filled with discontent from players and fans. Among the many criticisms: The format is unimaginative (72-hole stroke play) and does not include a team component. The 60-player field is watered down by a qualification process that limits a country to four representatives if they’re ranked inside the top 15. (Even Tiger Woods said Wednesday that the Olympics deserves a “top-heavy field.”) The golf course has been a never-ending headache for Gil Hanse and his team. The PGA Tour schedule this season is too condensed, with three majors, a World Golf Championships event, the Olympics, FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup in a 17-week span. Zika arrived earlier this year, with medical experts still unclear about the mosquito-borne virus’ short- and long-term effects. And on Friday, with the Games less than 50 days away, Rio’s governor declared a state of financial emergency.
If more big names drop out, then golf’s participation issue should be blamed on the Zika virus and the host city, not that the sport is ill-suited for the Olympics.
Think of it this way: If the Games were held in Los Angeles, or London, or Tokyo, would so many players drop out, even in a hectic year? Probably not.
There is precedent to consider about this imperfect introduction.
In 1988, tennis returned as a medal sport after a 64-year absence, and the reaction was mixed, even underwhelming. Eight of the top 10 players in the world opted not to play, citing a variety of reasons, from minor injuries to scheduling conflicts to family commitments.
Back then, players trotted out the same excuses we hear now – that capturing a gold medal was never their goal, that their inclusion was disrespectful to other athletes who train four years for the event, that their schedule was already too crowded, that their sport shouldn’t be included because they’re judged by the number of majors won, not medals.
After the 1988 Games, however, perception about tennis’ inclusion began to change; those who had skipped now wanted an opportunity to hang a medal around their neck. Though players still don’t view Olympic gold the same as the Wimbledon trophy, most of the sport’s biggest stars compete, the matches are intense and, eventually, a deserving winner is crowned.
The belief here is that once players arrive in Rio, they’ll be enthralled by the pageantry of the Olympics. They’ll mingle with the best athletes from all around the world and cherish representing their country at the biggest spectacle in sports.
The problem, of course, is convincing them to actually make the trip.