On players skipping the Olympics

02.01.15 rory trophy

When it was announced back in 2009 that golf would be returning to the Olympics in 2016 for the first time since 1904, people were excited. It was cool that for the first time in pretty much everyone’s lifetime, golfers were going to represent their countries and be able to play for a gold medal. They were going to get to participate in the opening ceremonies, entering a massive stadium with their national anthem all around them, and maybe they’d even get to be their nation’s flagbearer or hear the anthem again on the podium as a medal was getting placed around their necks. Being an Olympian means a lot.

For golfers, this hasn’t been possible in a really long time, and as Jordan Spieth said in recent television promos, he wasn’t able to throw a javelin or run really fast growing up, so just knowing that he could go and play golf as an Olympian was great.

Fast forward to the current day though, and it seems like we get a new player every day who says they aren’t interested in competing. That cool factor, at least for professional golfers, has seemingly been replaced by a cloud hanging over the entire Olympic Games.

Today, it’s Rory McIlroy, citing fears around the Zika virus for the reason he has decided to drop out. McIlroy joins a list of big name players who won’t be teeing it up in Brazil like Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, with more names surely on the verge of announcing similar intentions now that McIlroy has decided to stay home. Anyone who pulls out now, save for maybe someone like Spieth or Jason Day, won’t get anywhere near the attention of McIlroy, so I’d expect that the floodgates are about to open.

It’s worth noting that it’s not just golfers who have decided to avoid the Olympics, as big name NBA players like Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry and James Harden have all taken a pass due to a variety of reasons, be it injury or similar Zika concerns. As it relates to golf, this was supposed to be a big deal for the game; a showcase where the best players in the world could put their skills on display for the biggest possible global audience and help give the sport the growth that it so desperately covets, but if only a handful of the top players show up, that’s not likely to happen.

People have been critical of the players pulling out. Alan Shipnuck wrote a piece for Golf.com last month asking why players aren’t more excited about the opportunity to play. Jack Nicklaus has been on the record about how disappointed he is with the players who have declined entry, and Gary Player, golf’s self appointed global ambassador, came out with a strong argument at the end of April, condemning players who don’t want to play.

Here’s the thing though: I honestly can’t blame the players for pulling out. Is the Zika virus as dangerous as some are making it out to be? Probably not, but if you’re someone like McIlroy who has indicated recently that he’d like to be married with kids at some point soon, going over to play and potentially catching the virus just doesn’t make any sense. Chances are likely that we’ll hear about someone, not necessarily golf related, contracting the virus after the Olympics are over and the effect that it’s having on them and their family. As great as it would be to have a gold medal, is the potential damage to your family worth it? Ultimately, I believe McIlroy when he says this is his main concern, but I do think there are other factors at play as well.

The thing that I mentioned at the top of this post about how golfers have never really thought about competing in the Olympics is a double edged sword. Sure, it’s cool that you could have the chance to win a gold medal, but it’s also never something that players have honestly thought about or worked towards. They’ve spent their entire careers, and in most cases, their entire lives, trying to get to the top of the game through amateur events, college, mini tours and eventually, the PGA or European Tour.

Everyone who plays golf at the highest level is trying to win tournaments, and then, major championships. Whether it’s right or wrong, a green jacket or Claret Jug is always going to be more important to the modern player than winning a gold medal. Part of that is how much we, as fans and commentators, value majors over everything else and how we deride players like Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia for never winning anything substantial. So much pressure is put on these guys to win one of four events each year, and so many ridiculous questions are asked when players struggle in the slightest, that it’s important to be as prepared as possible for those events, and as odd as it may sound, the Olympics just doesn’t get to that level and probably never will.

Throw in the fact that this event has made the regular schedule and travel an absolute mess, with two majors in a three week span coming up shortly, and that it’s just a regular stroke play event when there was a much, much better format staring them right in the face, and you just have a combination of things that appeals to very few people. Everything that we’ve heard about setting up the course and getting it prepared for the event has made it sound nightmarish too, not to mention that the Olympics as a whole seems to be a massive disaster waiting to happen in Brazil.

Some of the top players will still obviously be going, but with the way the field is shaping up, the event will be lucky if they can attract a field that rivals a regular stop on the PGA Tour. One that, even though it offers a gold medal, doesn’t offer any monetary reward and sure, the Ryder Cup doesn’t give out money either, but the history and format combined with the fact that there isn’t a virus hanging over it every two years makes it far more palatable. And as far as growing the game goes, I’d love to say that the Olympics would be a huge driver for growth, but the issues that hang over the sport (price, time, class system, governing bodies, etc) aren’t as prominent as they are in basketball or soccer, and that’s not going to change just because Rory McIlroy played a stroke play event in Brazil.

I’m all for having golf in the Olympics and think that it could be good for the sport, and when players like McIlroy are sitting on their couch at home watching a gold medal being placed around someone’s neck, I’m betting that they’ll feel a little bummed out about not being there. But I’m also not going to be upset with the players who think it’s not worth their time to go. Ultimately, it’s their call on how they and their families want to live their lives and structure their careers, and the Olympics just might not land very high on the priority list with everything that’s surrounding the event this year. You can’t blame someone for putting their family above their career.

What does that mean for golf’s inclusion in future Olympic Games? I’m guessing that it’ll be removed after 2020, and that chance to win a gold medal will be non-existent, just like it was before. As cool as it would be to win a gold medal, I don’t think the players are going to mind too much if the opportunity isn’t there, and neither should we.

4 Comments on “On players skipping the Olympics”

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