Could we be set for another epidemic of Olympic withdrawals?

Mark McGowan

Shane Lowry. Design by Ed Moynihan

We hardly need reminding, but with golf set to make its Olympic return after a 112-year absence, the mosquito-borne Zika virus threw several spanners into the works. Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson were the top three in the world at the time, and all cited Zika fears for their withdrawal, as did our own leading trio of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry.

Though some have since ceded a lack of desire to compete as opposed to genuine health and safety concerns being the underlying motifs, this article is not intended to examine the rights and wrongs from four years ago. Neither being an Olympic athlete nor designated media, going (or being sent) to Rio was never on the cards, but recently married as I was, and planning a future that involved having children, I can’t say for certain that I’d have taken a “damn the consequences” approach.

But realistically, on the wider scale, the Zika virus was relatively harmless. The biggest cause for concern was congenital defects being passed on during pregnancy, and while not playing down the seriousness of these, the actual instances of such defects occurring were quite small. Thousands of athletes, thousands of officials, and tens of thousands of spectators all attended the Rio Games and there have been no confirmed cases of the virus occurring in any of these.


But now, four years on and with Tokyo looming, there is a much more serious and very real threat on the horizon. To date, the coronavirus has claimed 2,247 lives – a number which in all likelihood will have risen by the time you read this. Though originating in China, and where it is still concentrated highest, East-Asian neighbours South Korea and Japan are among the other countries of highest concern.

The LPGA Tour has already cancelled two Asian events this season – the tour stops in Thailand and Singapore – and it’s a decision that few can argue with. The opening ceremony in Tokyo is due to commence in five months, and a typical Olympic Games brings close to a million people together from every corner of the world.

Of course, the hope is that by the time the Games roll around, the virus will have been effectively quarantined, but it’s been two months since the initial outbreak and there are new cases being identified every day.

With something like the Olympic Games which has probably already cost Japan several billion dollars, cancelling would be an economic disaster to a country that has been struggling to recover from two decades of economic stagnation interspersed with natural disaster – an absolute last case scenario situation. One which the entire Japanese nation and thousands of athletes will be desperate to avoid.

But many golfers enjoy a luxury that their fellow athletes don’t. Riches and wealth, autonomy and autocracy, and a sport that places four annual tournaments on a pedestal that even the Olympic Games with its history and prestige can’t touch.

Any risk, however minor, could legitimately be classed as too much risk if this is your daily operating environment.

I always felt the litmus test for golf as an Olympic sport would be the field in Tokyo, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe this will be another Rio, and Paris 2024 will be the real test.

Are we poised for another epidemic of Olympic withdrawals? The dominos are lining up, but who will be first to take the fall?

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