Why Are So Many Golfers Dropping Out of the Rio Olympics?

With Jordan Spieth having dropped out on Monday, the list totals at 21 no-shows

Rory McIlroy
Wikimedia Commons

You can officially add Olympic golf to the list of Rio disasters.

Out of a total 60 male golfers invited to compete in the Olympics, 21 players including the top four in the world — Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy — have officially dropped out of the event, according to CBS Sports.

“It’s certainly disappointing that we’ve had so many withdrawals on the men’s side, and wonderful that all of the women have been very supportive,” International Golf Federation President Peter Dawson said at a press conference on Monday. “There is no doubt that the number of withdrawals hasn’t shed golf in the best light, and we have to accept that.”

This is only the second time that golf has been played at the summer Olympics since the 1904 games in St. Louis, Missouri. The decision came after leaders from the International Golf Federation helped persuade the 121st International Olympic Committee to vote to include golf for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics.

But for golfers, winning an Olympic gold medal doesn’t hold the same significance — or cash prize amount — as winning the PGA Championship or taking home a Masters title and donning the iconic green jacket. And during the late summer and early fall this year, a number of notable tournaments will coincide with taking a trip to Brazil.

Attending the Olympics would mean competing less than two weeks after the PGA Championship, missing the John Deere Classic in Illinois with a $4.8 million pot, quickly flying back to North Carolina to make it for the Wyndham Championship on Aug. 15-21 for $5.4 million at stake, and then preparing for the prestigious and patriotic Ryder Cup in late September, where players from Europe and the U.S. compete — much like the Olympics — for their home teams. And this doesn’t even include the four tournaments players must compete in between Aug. 25 – Sept. 25 for the FedEx Cup, which boasts a prize fund of $35 million.

But aside from the monetary benefits and prestige of these other tournaments, several golfers have pointed to concerns about the Zika virus’ effect on their ability to have children as main reasons for not heading to Rio — much to the criticism of other competing Olympic athletes.

“When you see the Olympics as the pinnacle of any sport, all athletes are in,” Australian swimmer Cate Campbell said in an interview with the Courier Mail. “It would take a lot more than Zika to stop me from going to Rio.”

The lead author of a study that found the link between the Zika virus and serious birth defects, Karin Nielsen of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said that players actually have much worse viruses transmitted by mosquitoes to fear than Zika.

“What is interesting is there has always been dengue in Brazil … and people have never stopped going to sporting events because of that,” Nielsen told TheWrap. “Truthfully, dengue is a far worse disease to acquire. So is chikungunya [virus] as opposed to Zika for non-pregnant individuals.”

Given that it’s currently winter in Rio de Janeiro, Nielsen said that cases of Zika have dramatically dropped and that none have been reported since May.

“Personally, I think that the major question is whether Zika is a problem at all because really, it has stopped circulating in Rio de Janeiro and that’s what people are not aware of,” Nielsen said.

For non-pregnant individuals who do contract Zika, Nielsen said the virus typically stays in the blood for three to five days and then is excreted in the urine for two weeks. There has only been one known case where the virus stayed in an individual’s semen for 60 days, but Nielsen said it still remains unclear whether or not the virus is transmittable at that point.

Though Nielsen acknowledged that golfers were likely at a higher risk of getting infected because the sport involves being outdoors for longer periods of time, she said it was an “overzealous” and “overcautious” choice not to attend the Olympics because of Zika fears.

“I would strongly advise pregnant women not to go [to the Olymics], but for individuals who are not pregnant, especially if the virus is not circulating, there’s minimal risk,” Nielsen said. “There are other precautionary measures you could use rather than not going.”