Golf’s Olympic revival is five weeks away, but the sport’s return is off to an inauspicious start. Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott have all decided to bypass the Brazil competition, with fellow stars Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Danny Willett also waffling on attending. And that’s not counting the wave of second-tiered players who are bypassing the Rio de Janeiro Games, a list that’s likely to grow by the time you finish reading this sentence.
For most, Brazil’s perilous health considerations — most notably, the Zika epidemic — were cited as cause for recantation.
“Zika virus, it was a very difficult decision to make, obviously from representing your country, but also having to put family first and make sure that’s a priority over anything else, more so than golf and the Olympics,” Day said on Tuesday at Firestone Country Club. “I just can’t put my family through that, especially with the future children we’re looking at having.”
It’s far from the region’s only issue, as Rio’s rampant water-sewage problems, transportation nightmares, corrupt local and federal government, crumbling economy and rising violence are very real threats to a safe and stable Olympic environment.
Yet, there are growing rumblings that male golfers — to this point, just one LPGA player, South Africa’s Lee-Anne Pace, has pulled out of the August tournament — are the only athletes from almost any sport skipping the Summer Olympics. Is that merely perception, or a startling truth?
To find out, we analyzed the commitments of athletes from other Olympic realms. Because of the different sports, there’s not a universal barometer or control; how we rank the best soccer or basketball players is not as data driven as tennis or boxing. What also constitutes as a sport’s “best” could be debated; a top-15 ranking in golf doesn’t mean the same as a top-15 standing in tennis.
Moreover, the study also deserves a major preface, for, in many sports, the Olympics is the zenith of their athletic endeavor. Can you imagine if the Masters was held just once every four years? Through this prism, it’s understandable why swimmers, runners and wrestlers are likely more willing to deal with the risk. To golfers, a gold medal doesn’t gain an automatic spot on the wish list. That said, basketball, tennis and soccer can make similar claims.
Keeping that caveat in mind, here are the athlete dropout rates of major Olympic sports:
As of this writing, five of the world’s top 14 men’s players won’t be in Brazil. The educated guess, especially given Spieth’s comments at Firestone on Tuesday, says more golfers will say no to Rio. But for the sake of argument, we won’t assume.
Nevertheless, we are keeping the scope of “best” at 15 players. It may seem arbitrary, yet seven of the next eight players in the world rankings are American, and we can’t count their participation, as it’s theoretical since a maximum of four U.S. players — currently Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Fowler — can qualify, all who sit in the top 14. The 15th player is Hideki Matsuyama, who sits 16th in World rankings and 10th in Olympic rankings.
By that context, a third of golf’s elite are missing Brazil. Again, that number could increase in the upcoming days, but this at least gives us a starting benchmark.
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