Breaking Down Rory McIlroy's Olympic Problem

Ben Alberstadt@benalberstadtFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2013

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 16:  Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland looks on during the pro-am event prior to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club on January 16, 2013 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

If he had his way, Rory McIlroy would play golf for Northern Ireland’s Olympic team. Unfortunately for the world No. 1, there’s no such team. Instead, players from Northern Ireland are given the option of playing for either Great Britain or Ireland.

Indeed, as McIlroy himself stated, ''If I could and there was a Northern Irish team I'd play for Northern Ireland.” 

Were he able to play for Northern Ireland, he’d avoid the personal and political conundrum he finds himself in as a function of where he was born. Additionally, as golf hasn’t been a part of the Olympics for a hundred years, McIlroy can’t lean on the precedent established by golfers from Northern Ireland before him.

The 23-year-old is in a difficult spot.

With the possibility of playing for his birth country removed from McIlroy’s Olympic equation, the golfer from Hollywood, Northern Ireland has three options:

1. Play for Great Britain 
2. Play for Ireland
3. Sit out the Olympics

Pursuing any of these three courses of action will, at the very least, ruffle some feathers, and at worst infuriate an entire country.

For McIlroy, the difficulty of his position is apparent: ''I feel Northern Irish and obviously being from Northern Ireland you have a connection to Ireland and a connection to the U.K.'' His true feelings about his nationality and cultural identity, too, are clear; McIlroy feels himself to be both Irish and British, thus making his decision all the more difficult.

The 23-year-old got a taste of the reactions he’s likely to garner when he eventually makes his announcement when he was indelicate enough to state that he felt “more British than Irish” in an interview last year. Responses to issues of cultural identity in Ireland and Northern Ireland are imbued with a significance well beyond what the average American (or citizens of the vast majority of other countries, really) ever experiences.

Without getting into a history of the the development of the Partition of Ireland, The Troubles or Sinn Fein, it’s sufficient to state, in a brief article on a sports website, that the history of the distinction between Ireland and Northern Ireland is long, complicated, bloody and imbued with tremendous emotion.

Somehow lost in all the speculation about who McIlroy will play for is who he has already played for; that is, McIlroy has already represented Ireland on more than one occasion at the amateur level.  

As Jeff Shain of the Orlando Sentinel states, “McIlroy’s golf roots lay in Ireland, where he won the Irish Boys, Irish Youths and Irish Amateur crowns over the years. He also represented Ireland in international youth competition.”

This fact, however, doesn’t seem to indicate to the masses that McIlroy should play for Ireland in the Olympics. Neither does it seem to say to most that because of his history of playing for Ireland, he may continue to do so in international competition with the blessing of England and his Northern Irish brethren.

In fact, McIlroy, a Catholic from Northern Ireland, seems to have reaped no collateral from the precedent established as a junior golfer. To this end, if there is a “right” choice (and there isn’t), no momentum towards playing for Ireland seems to have been established by the golfer’s past.

So, how did we end up here?

After McIlroy made the aforementioned remark about “feeling British,” he was compelled to take to Twitter and publish a statement about his plans for the 2016 Olympics.

In a statement published both on his website and Twitter, Rory McIlroy indicated, as of the beginning of September, that he had not made a decision as to whom he would swing his Nikes for in 2016.

“I wish to clarify that I have absolutely not made a decision regarding my participation in the next Olympics,” the Northern Ireland native said in a seven-paragraph statement.

Following this, McIlroy has suggested that he might not play in the Olympics at all, knowing that he is sure to offend a portion of his fanbase and a European power.

It’s a strange position to be in for a guy whose biggest decision on any given day is what club to play to a back-left pin from 170 yards.

An Irish voice on the matter, Cathal Dervin of, feels that Rory has nothing to gain from declaring his allegiances for the 2016 games. As Dervin writes, “Put simply – Rory can’t win. Which is why I suggested...that he should simply skip the Olympics altogether and not align himself to either side.”

Dervin may be right. Certainly, for the fledgling Olympic golfing enterprise, having the top-ranked player in the world opt out won’t be perceived as a good thing. However, McIlroy’s decision not to participate would have to be understandable when viewed against the totality of the situation.

In a perversion of the classical Utilitarian notion that the right action is that which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people, McIlroy may want to sit the Olympics out, in order to piss off the least number of people.


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