Return of sport tainted by male pros skipping Rio

- Christine Brennan USA TODAY Sports FOLLOW COLUMNIST CHRISTINE BRENNAN @cbrennansp­orts to keep up with the latest sports issues.

One by one, the top male golfers in the world are withdrawin­g from the Rio Olympics. Jason Day pulled out this week. Rory McIlroy withdrew last week. Is Jordan Spieth next?

They blame the Zika virus, which is a reasonable excuse. Except for this: Have you heard any swimmers say they aren’t going to Rio because of Zika? Soccer players? Rowers? Of course not. The reason is simple: For them and the vast majority of athletes who will qualify for August’s Rio Games, an Olympic gold medal is the end all and be all in their sport. There is nothing greater for a runner or gymnast or fencer than reaching the Games after putting in four years (or more) of excruciati­ng effort, clinging to a life-long dream of perhaps winning a medal, maybe even gold.

For most profession­al golfers, however, Rio is either a nuisance or a lark. They would much rather win the Masters or the U.S. or British Opens. An Olympic gold medal? Perhaps that ranks right up there with the John Deere Classic, perhaps not.

While these young multimilli­onaires have every right to blame Zika, we have every right to wonder if that’s not just a convenient excuse to get out of making a trip to South America in the midst of their profession­al season.

It’s an excuse that is helping to expose the tremendous mistake the Internatio­nal Olympic Committee made seven years ago to bring golf back to the Olympics, allowing a sport already overflowin­g with internatio­nal events take a precious Olympic berth that originally had belonged to softball.

Remember softball? What its leaders and athletes wouldn’t give to be preparing for the Rio Olympics right now. Eight nations fielding teams of athletes, all of them women, all of them of childbeari­ng age, just like Day and McIlroy. Do you think they would be complainin­g about Zika? Or security or crime, other issues that are hinted at by the pro golfers.

It would have meant the world to those softball players. But the IOC didn’t want softball back. It wanted golf. Actually, it wanted Tiger Woods, which sounded good in 2009. By 2016, not so much.

Interestin­gly, because countries are limited to two male and two female players for the sepa- rate Olympic four-round tournament­s (or up to a maximum of four if those nation’s golfers are all in the top 15 of the world rankings), only 18 male players from the world top 50 as of earlier this week will be in Rio.

On the women’s side, only one player has withdrawn: South Africa’s Lee-Anne Pace, ranked 38th in the world, citing Zika. Why aren’t the women bailing like the men? Because the Olympics is a much bigger deal to them. In this way, the LPGA is more like the NHL, which stops its season every four years to allow its stars to participat­e in the Winter Olympics. The women golfers are much more excited to be on the Olympic stage than their male counterpar­ts, hence the lack of withdrawal­s, at least so far.

The embarrassi­ng drumbeat of withdrawal­s by some of the best male golfers in the world should be a lesson for the IOC. We’re stuck with golf for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but, next year, the IOC will vote to decide if golf stays longer than that.

If the IOC has any sense at all — and that’s imminently debatable — it should send golf right back out of the Olympics. As we are learning, golf doesn’t need the Olympics, and vice versa.

McIlroy indicated as much in a recent interview on the Golf Channel:

“To call yourself an Olympian ... it does an injustice to the people who have trained for four years for this event. Golfers are going to go down there for a week, pitch up and enjoy the whole thing. People have had to sell their cars and sell their homes just to afford to train to compete at the Olympics.”

After each race at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha this week, a wonderful ritual occurs. The swimmer who has just qualified for Rio rises on elevated flooring from a lower level to the pool deck as red, white and blue lighting and patriotic music floods the packed arena. Their joy is palpable. The dream of a lifetime has been achieved. They are going to Rio.

Keep tweeting and making excuses, golfers. The contrast couldn’t be more remarkable.

 ?? DAVID J. PHILLIP, AP ?? On Rio’s new Olympic course, golf will return to the Games for the first time since 1904.
DAVID J. PHILLIP, AP On Rio’s new Olympic course, golf will return to the Games for the first time since 1904.
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