Tokyo 2020March 4, 2020

Olympics: Will the strength of the fields suffer because of coronavirus fears?

Mask-clad people pose with an installation of the Olympic rings in Tokyo on February 28, 2020.
CHARLY TRIBALLEAUMask-clad people pose with an installation of the Olympic rings in Tokyo on February 28, 2020.

ORLANDO – Is Olympic golf in for another bout of participation doubt?

Four years ago, golf’s return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904 at the Rio Summer Games was muted as at least a dozen of the game’s top men’s players pulled out due to fears of the Zika virus epidemic in Brazil.

This year, it’s the growing concern over the spreading coronavirus that potentially could dampen strength of field in the 60-player men’s and women’s competitions at the Tokyo Olympics starting in late July.

“It’s something that we’re trying to stay on top of,” Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, said Wednesday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club. McIlroy was one of the most prominent players who skipped the Rio golf event won by Justin Rose.

“It's something that if the organizers and the Olympic Committee believe it's safe enough that athletes can go and compete in the Games, then you have to take their word for it," McIlroy, a native of Northern Ireland, added. "They're obviously liaising with the people that are the best at doing this, whether it's the CDC in this country, whether it's the World Health Organization, whatever it is. If they're speaking to those people, and those people are the best in their field, then you have to trust that their judgment is the right one.”

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The men’s Olympic tournament, 72 holes of stroke play, begins Thursday, July 30. The women’s event, won by Korea’s Inbee Park in 2016, begins Wednesday, Aug. 5.

On Tuesday, Mark Adams of the International Olympic Committee said that the Tokyo Olympics will go on as scheduled starting with the Opening Ceremonies on July 24, though officials continue to monitor the situation. Japan’s proximity to China has caused speculation that the Games could be postponed or canceled altogether. The virus originated in Wuhan, in central China, and it has since spread to numerous countries, including Japan, Italy, England and the U.S.

It’s possible that the Summer Games simply could be postponed, Seiko Hashimoto, Japan’s Olympic minister was quoted as saying on Tuesday. Hashimoto pointed out that the contract between Tokyo and the IOC stipulates that the Olympics could be held anytime in the 2020 calendar year.

RELATED: IOC: 2020 Tokyo Olympics will not be postponed due to coronavirus

As of Tuesday, 283 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Japan. It has caused six deaths.

Fears of the coronavirus impacted the recent Tokyo Marathon. No spectators were permitted on the course. Competitors ran on empty streets, according to a BBC Sport report.

Dustin Johnson, who also skipped the Rio Olympics due to concerns over the Zika virus, recently confirmed that he did not intend to play in Tokyo, though he cited scheduling considerations as his reason. Johnson currently is No. 5 in the world.

Australia’s Adam Scott, ranked seventh, echoed McIlroy’s sentiments that much depends on what health experts say. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Scott, yet another player who opted out of Rio. “It seems a bit overblown at the moment. We don’t know which medical experts in the field to believe. It’s just, we’ll have to wait and see.”