Heavy medal: Olympic participation decision not easy

May 4, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Adam Scott said it was “an extremely busy playing schedule.” Louis Oosthuizen cited family and scheduling issues, and Vijay Singh referenced concerns over the Zika virus.

All told, four players who were currently qualified for the Olympics have taken a pass for a number of different reasons, ranging from an unrealistically crowded schedule leading into the Games to logistic and health concerns.

Scott, this year’s FedEx Cup frontrunner, is the most high-profile player to decline a trip to Rio in August, and to be fair the Australian has said all along that the Games have never been a priority for him.

On Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Championship, it quickly became evident that it was not a choice Scott came by lightly or without a good amount of thought.

“The tough part was to choose not to represent Australia,” he said. “But I feel like I do that every week. I’ve lived my life representing Australia and I feel I’ve tried to do the best job I can at that.”

Scott acknowledged that some will second-guess his choice, question whether his decision not to play is based on personal gain (playing the Tour) and not the potential impact the Games could have on the growth of golf globally.

That Scott has been vilified in some circles for skipping the Olympics is not surprising; that he acknowledged that push-back, and even accepted much of that criticism, is a testament to how hard the choice was.

“Of course not everyone will understand my decision or like it, but not everyone’s in my position where I feel that’s something I’m willing to sacrifice for some family time,” he said. “As well as the criticism, I think there was some very fair constructive comments about the whole thing, and some of my point of view and feelings were explained well, too.”

Oosthuizen and Singh likely wrestled with similar internal debates before removing their names from Olympic consideration. The reality is even players who are committed to playing this year’s Games are doing so for a litany of different reasons.

Paul Casey, who is currently just outside of qualifying to represent England, said it’s always been his dream to don the “track suit” worn by his country’s athletes in the Parade of Nations; while Rickie Fowler, who is qualified, is looking forward to spending time around the swimmers, archers and runners representing the United States.

“Just being able to be a part of the Olympics, share the whole experience with other U.S. athletes and to be able to be down there and see the Village, go to other events and just really kind of take in the whole Olympic experience,” Fowler said.

Rory McIlroy, however, had the most detailed and telling take on his commitment to the Games.

McIlroy’s longtime friend Paul McGinley will captain the Irish golf team in Rio and McIlroy said he didn’t want to let him down by not playing, but it was golf’s potential future in the Games that eventually pushed the world No. 3 over the Olympic hill.

“It’s in Rio this year and Tokyo in 2020. I’m not sure if we’re going to have another opportunity to win a gold medal after that depending on what happens,” McIlroy said.

What McIlroy is referring to is golf’s longevity as an Olympic sport.

When the International Olympic Committee approved golf’s return to the Games for the first time since 1904 it was for just two Olympiads, this year in Rio and in 2020 in Japan, but the rub is the IOC will decide if golf remains an Olympic sport beyond 2020 before the Tokyo Games are held.

In short, golf may get only one chance to make a lasting impression on the IOC, so – for McIlroy – that means taking advantage of the opportunity now.

Besides, the Northern Irishman figures there’s no way to judge the importance of a gold medal to future legacies.

“I don’t know how that will stack up against the other things that I’ve done in my career now, but maybe I might look back in 20 years time and a gold medal might be one of my crowning achievements in the game, you never know,” McIlroy said.

Olympic golf qualifies as uncharted waters for both players and fans, which at least partially explains the decisions made by some to skip the Games. While the motivations for traditional Olympic athletes are universally simple – win medals – for golfers, from Scott to McIlroy, it turns out the priorities are much more nuanced.

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