Rory McIlroy knows he risks losing some fans as golf returns to the Olympics for the first time in more than a century at the next games in Rio de Janeiro.
Barely has the five-ringed flag landed in Brazil and pressure is already mounting on Northern Irish-born McIlroy to name which country he will represent. Like all competitors born in the U.K. province, the golfer can choose between Ireland and Britain. Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, said on Aug. 13 he hoped McIlroy, 23, who won his second major tournament this month, would choose Ireland.
“Inevitable criticism will come with that decision,” said Kevin Howard, a lecturer in social studies at Dundalk Institute of Technology halfway between Dublin and Belfast. “There is this sense of Irishness in an all-island sense.”
McIlroy, a Catholic raised in a predominantly Protestant area, will turn the spotlight of one of the most complicated elements of Northern Ireland’s divided society: sport.
When Ulster rugby players represent the Irish national team, sport transcends the divisions. At other times, it’s exposed them, with the Northern Irish Football Association accusing the Irish Republic of poaching some of its best young players and with the assassination of Gaelic Athletic Association members during the violence that afflicted the region for three decades.
The golfer told website PGA.com earlier this year he plans to leave the decision until the last minute because “whatever I say I’m going to upset someone.”
“He hasn’t even thought about the 2016 Olympics as it’s four years away,” McIlroy’s representatives, Dublin-based Horizon Sports Management, said in an e-mail last week. “He will be 27 when the event is on so it’s not even something he is interested in discussing at this stage.”
Ireland was partitioned in 1922, with six counties in the Protestant-dominated north splitting from predominately Catholic south and remaining in the U.K. In the London Olympics, athletes from the province won five medals, three for the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team and two for Ireland.
McIlroy grew up in Bangor, a mainly Protestant seaside town about eight miles south-east of Belfast. His great-uncle, Joseph, was shot dead in 1972 by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a terror group that fought to keep Northern Ireland within the U.K, according to Cain, an Internet database at the University of Ulster. He was shot at his home in east Belfast aged 30.
While the violence that scarred the region since the 1960s largely ended after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, sport has remained a source of rancour in some areas.
In 2002, Northern Ireland soccer captain Neil Lennon, a Catholic, left the team after receiving death threats. Lennon, who at the time played for Glasgow Celtic Football Club, supported mainly by Catholics, said after he was regularly booed by Protestant supporters of Northern Ireland.
The Irish Football Association has put a “substantial amount of work and effort into eradicating sectarianism associated with some followers of the Northern Ireland football team in the past,” spokesman Geoff Wilson said by phone.
In 2010, the IFA lost a bid to stop Darron Gibson, born in Derry, also known as Londonderry, in the northwest of Northern Ireland, from playing for the Republic of Ireland soccer team.
“Any player born in a region should play for that region, that was our case,” said Wilson. “We feel we are being mistreated. But a ruling has been made and we will abide it.”
In other cases, sport is a bridge between the two parts of the island. The Irish rugby team draws players and supporters from nationalist and unionist backgrounds and plays its home matches at the national stadium in Dublin.
“Sport has worked best on an all-island representative basis precisely by having nothing whatsoever to do with politics,” said Eunan O’Halpin, a professor of Irish history at Trinity College Dublin. “Rugby, hockey, cricket and horse racing are clear instances. Even in the darkest days of the Troubles, Orangemen came to Lansdowne Road to cheer on Ireland against England.”
McIlroy has won support across Northern Ireland’s political divide as his success, and that of fellow Northern Ireland golfers Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, boost a region where unemployment has doubled since 2008. Last week, McIlroy won the U.S. PGA Championship by eight strokes. Last year, he won the U.S. Open with a record score, following on from McDowell’s success in the same tournament the year before.
“The Good Friday Agreement has changed things,” said Howard. “The idea of identity isn’t as contentious as it was in 1998. Maybe Rory McIlroy will benefit from that.”