The first tee shot in Rio is 91 days away and the players are dropping like “mosquitoes.” A bad pun – yes – but the point is clear: golf’s return to the Olympics is unfortunately not without an unwanted shadow.
The main culprit scaring off some would-be competitors is the Zika virus, which is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. An article in the Harvard Public Health Review, co-published by TIME, recently urged: “Zika Virus Means Brazil’s 2016 Olympics Must Not Proceed.” The associated risks and fears are warranted, but like all stories, there are two sides.
One-sided headlines like these have scared off the likes of veteran PGA TOUR player Vijay Singh and Mark Leishman, ranked 35th in the world, who just announced he won’t represent Australia in Rio because of the fear of his wife contracting the virus.
In a press conference prior to the The Player’s Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla. this week, the PGA TOUR & LPGA TOUR Commissioners addressed the media, aiming to change the conversation. The Olympic golf course in Rio is inland and it’s winter there, which is not high bug season. Still, both tours are taking all precautions to educate and to help protect players.
“There’s no doubt that Zika is something that’s captured our attention,” said Mike Whan, LPGA Commissioner. “I don’t think there is anybody who’s between the ages of 18 & 35 on our TOUR that doesn’t know how to spell it and how to say it.”
That said, Whan later added: “I’ve yet to have a player say to me they’re not planning to go because of Zika.”
At Lambton Golf & Country Club in Toronto’s West end on Tuesday, where Golf Canada and Hudson’s Bay unveiled Team Canada’s golf uniform, Alena Sharp — one of Canada’s Olympic golf hopefuls — was aware of the concerns, but she’s not afraid; she’s ready and excited to wear the red and white on the Brazilian fairways come August.
“I don’t plan on having any kids,” Sharp said. “That’s not part of my life plan. I’m not too concerned about it. If I did get bit by a mosquito that had it, I would think, we will have the medicine to treat it.”
While she is taking preventative measures by getting other vaccinations, what Sharp, 35, is more concerned about is the chance to represent her country and compete for a place on the podium in Rio.
“It’s a huge thing to be a part of,” she said. “To put that on my resume, no one can ever take that away. When I’m older I can say I was an Olympian. To go there and do well, and win a medal, that would be huge on my bucket list and one of the biggest accomplishments I could ever have.”
“It’s not just about the golf tournament,” she added. “It’s about going there and experiencing the whole Olympic experience. I want to go to other events and be a part of Team Canada.”
Team Canada was one of only three countries that had representatives at a golf test event in Brazil this past March. This is part of the extra edge Jeff Thompson, Chief Sport Officer, Golf Canada, hopes to give our Olympic golfers. “The coaches put together video footage of every hole,” he said. “We are going to provide a pre-event briefing for all the players so they feel like they’ve been there.”
Seeing first hand the reality of Zika and other concerns beyond the golf course in Rio, also helped answer any other questions and led Golf Canada to make some minor tweaks to the women’s uniforms.
“We were going to go with capris and now we are looking at full-length pants and shirts with the sun arm pieces,” Thompson concluded. “The good thing about the golf course is it’s very exposed. It’s a links-style course with very few trees. The wind is going to be howling out there, so I don’t think mosquitoes at the golf course will be an issue.”