By skipping out on the Rio Olympics, Rory McIlroy will have more time to focus on what’s most important to him, like catching the Olympics on TV. “I’ll probably watch the Olympics, but I’m not sure golf will be one of the events I’ll watch,” McIlroy said at a press conference on Tuesday. What events will he tune in for? “Track and field, swimming, diving—the stuff that matters.”
It isn’t all that notable that an elite player said he doesn’t care about the first Olympic golf tournament since 1904. We already knew as much, given that the top four men in the world rankings—Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and McIlroy—have chosen to keep their little white balls at home. What was noteworthy about Tuesday’s presser was that McIlroy quasi-admitted the real reason he’s not going to Rio: He just doesn’t want to. Back in June, the 27-year-old from Northern Ireland explained that “though the risk of infection from the Zika virus is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless, and a risk I am unwilling to take.” That statement was craven and disingenuous. It also wasn’t unusual. While plenty of athletes have raised concerns about Zika, male golfers have led the way in using it as an excuse to take the week off.
In his blame-it-on-the-insects statement, Johnson said, “my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored.” Day’s version: “The sole reason for my decision is my concerns about the possible transmission of the Zika virus and the potential risks that it may present to my wife's future pregnancies and to future members of our family.” The always diplomatic Spieth cited “health concerns” as his no-go-on-Rio rationale, with Zika among the risks to his well-being. The always undiplomatic Vijay Singh went with, “I would like to play the Olympics, but the Zika virus, you know, and all that crap.”
“You know and all that crap” is a great capsule summary of all this Zika-blaming rhetoric. As ESPN’s Jason Sobel wrote a couple of weeks ago, the Zika virus is “the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card for professional golfers.” There are plenty of good reasons for a multimillionaire star athlete not to bother with the Olympics. The world’s top golfers didn’t grow up dreaming of Olympic glory; the decision to add the sport to the games didn’t come until 2009, and it was pushed more by the sport’s governing bodies than the players themselves. Golfers also have busy schedules filled with events that earn them prestige and cash. (The Olympics have no prize money.) Spieth, Johnson, and McIlroy already have the opportunity to compete internationally in the biennial Ryder Cup. And golfers have much longer careers than, say, gymnasts; if the 28-year-old Day decides he wants to play in the Olympics, he’ll still have a bunch of opportunities to do so.
When it comes time to have your agent write up a press release, though, “I love my family more than golf” strikes a more wholesome, sorrowful tone than “Why should I fly thousands of miles to play for free in a not-very-prestigious event that will earn lots of other people lots of money?” The screw-you-IOC-and-NBC excuse is a reasonable one. The Zika excuse is not. As Marc Siegel wrote in Slate last month, “For healthy, nonreproducing people, Zika poses little threat.” By invoking the threat of the virus, these golfers are both stoking irrational fear of Zika and making a mockery of the real concerns of couples navigating pregnancy right now.
Though the CDC recommends that pregnant women not travel to Brazil, Day’s worries for “future members of our family” don’t make much sense. With the exception of women who are actively trying to become pregnant, Zika poses almost no risks for otherwise healthy adults. As Stat News’ Helen Branswell recently explained, “There’s no reason to think infection will have a permanent or even long-lived impact on a woman’s fertility or the health of any babies she might have down the road.” If a man does get Zika—and the chance of a visitor contracting it in Brazil during the Olympics is miniscule—the CDC suggests he “hold off on fathering children for six months.” Those “who have been to a place [where] Zika is spreading but didn’t develop symptoms of the disease should practice safe sex for eight weeks after their return.” (Cyclist Tejay van Garderen, who pulled out of the Olympics because his wife is pregnant, has a much better reason to play it safe. Zika can be transmitted sexually and can cross into the womb during pregnancy, though the CDC states that using condoms offers adequate protection.)
It’s possible these golfers are protecting pregnancies that are currently under wraps. More likely, they’re trying to use a matter of genuine public health concern for their own PR benefit. Consider that McIlroy went to Barbados with his fiancée back in April. (It looks like they had a lovely time.) Barbados, like Brazil, is classified as a “Level 2” Zika threat by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When Bloomberg’s Tariq Panja asked the golfer to explain this seeming hypocrisy, McIlroy’s PR team said they’d have “no further comment.”
Even without the likes of McIlroy and Day, the Olympic golf event won’t be a total loss. The world’s No. 5 player Bubba Watson will be there. Everyone loves Bubba Watson! (He took the Confederate flag off his Dukes of Hazzard car, don’t you know.) The real star power will be on the women’s side, where the top nine in the world rankings will all compete. But the calculus for elite women golfers, who are less famous and less well-compensated than their male counterparts, is far different. “Being part of the Olympics, it’s a very great platform to show off,” Chinese golfer Shanshan Feng told the New York Times.
Shanshan Feng isn’t some kind of hero because she’s playing in Brazil. There is no moral imperative for anyone to go to the Olympics. It’s nice, though, that she isn’t insulting our intelligence.
I take some consolation in the fact that golf fans don’t seem to be fooled by this I-must-protect-my-family business. In one extremely unscientific internet poll, just 13 percent of respondents said they believe male golfers are skipping the Olympics because of Zika. By far the most popular conjecture: scheduling fatigue/lack of motivation (61 percent).
It’s also worth noting that not every male golfer has been as insincere as McIlroy. Here’s Zimbabwe’s Brendon de Jonge on why he’s not going for gold:
The reason for my decision is not my concern about the Zika virus. It is truly a business decision. It would have been a great honor to play for my country. I am truly disappointed, but my current position on the FedEx Cup points list does not allow me the luxury to skip the John Deere Classic or the Travelers Championship. This has to be a priority for me and my family.
De Jonge has never finished higher than 26th in a major championship. He seems more concerned with making money than bringing honor and glory to his country. Congratulations, Mr. de Jonge: You are my new favorite golfer.