Rory McIlroy Withdrawals from the Olympics Over Zika Fear

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland hits his tee shot on the 14th hole during the continuation of the weather delayed first round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club on June 17, 2016. Credit: Sam Greenwood / Getty Images

Rory McIlroy has abandoned his quest for an Olympic Gold Medal over concerns about the Zika virus.

The world number 4 issued a statement: "After much thought and deliberation, I have decided to withdraw my name from consideration for this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. After speaking with those closest to me, I've come to realize that my health and my family's health comes before anything else. Even though the risk of infection from the Zika virus is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take."

According to the CDC, the Zika virus is transmitted mainly through Aedes mosquitos carrying the disease. But people can also become infected through sexual contact and pregnant women can pass the virus to their fetuses. While Zika symptoms in adults are usually mild, including fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, the disease can cause a major birth defect called microcephaly, along with other severe fetal brain defects.

The Olympic Council of Ireland, for whom McIlroy was set to play (born in Northern Ireland, he was eligible to compete under the UK flag, but chose Ireland,) expressed disappointment in their own statement, "It is down to the individual, and of course we respect his decision, which he has taken for personal reasons. Rory was set to be one of the big stars of Rio 2016, but now there is an opportunity for another Irish golfer to take up the chance to become an Olympian." According to the World Rankings at this moment, that honor would fall to Graeme McDowell.

Golf's return to the Olympics is hugely important for the sport's industry and its ambition to grow the game around the world. The cache of a truly global competition could inspire millions in emerging nations to pick up clubs. Losing one of the sports most popular and most globally recognizable players is a tough blow.

"Rory playing certainly would add an exciting extra element to golf in the Olympics," says Gary Player, who is captaining the South African golf team. "He is one of the most charismatic figures in the game and no doubt he could be one of the biggest stars golf has even known. Even so, the Olympics will absolutely grow golf worldwide no matter who plays and who doesn't."

From a young man's perspective, legendary player Greg Norman can sympathize with his concerns. "If I were getting ready to marry and start a family I would consider (skipping) it," he says. "It has nothing to do with golf, it has nothing to do with the Olympics it just has to do with Mother Nature dealing the cards," Norman says. "But on the other hand if it was me with grown kids, I'd be there in a heart beat.

Norman, who is also a renowned course designer, was a finalist to construct the Olympic venue. He noted that the course is built along a large lagoon and wetlands that in his estimation is almost certainly a major a mosquito habitat, which could add to the exposure for golfers and their fears.

According to William Schaffner, MD, an Infectious Disease Specialist at Vanderbilt University, golfers could face a slight increase risk over those who participate in indoor sports. But for those choosing to compete there are ways to mitigate the risk. He recommends long pants, light colored clothing and a liberal application of bug spray. "The fragrance of the year is DEET," Schaffner says referencing the main ingredient in mosquito repellent. "Although its August, its winter in Rio De Janeiro, the low point of mosquito transmission, So, that's very fortunate."

"Of course, the Brazilians are going to use insecticide in and around all these venues with a vengeance," he says. "I would think the risk of his (McIlroy,) or any Olympian no mater what the venue, acquiring an infection is really very, very, low."

For all male travelers venturing in to areas where there has been an increased instance of Zika infection, protected sex (condoms) should still be practiced for eight weeks if the traveler displays no Zika-like symptoms, according to Schaffner. For those with an acute Zika infection, protected sex must be practiced for at least six months.

During an interview earlier this week with the Golf Channel's David Feherty, who will be covering the Olympic men's competition for NBC, the former pro weighed in on golfers skipping Rio due to Zika concerns.

"I'm not sure that I'd give anybody a hard time about it," he said. "They'd be sorry if they give up the chance to win an Olympic Gold Medal, that's a really special thing." But he said he understood the fear and apprehension some players are facing. "There are guys there who haven't had children," Feherty said. "It might not be such a good idea."