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How Zika Can Save the Olympics

David Kahn has been general manager of the Indiana Pacers, president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, head of the Oregon Stadium Campaign for Major League Baseball and is currently teaching two courses on sports economics at New York University.
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The Zika virus may be deadly serious, but is it really a potent enough reason to explain the withdrawal of Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and many other star golfers from the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro?   

There's a more likely explanation: The Olympics simply are not a priority for them. Which is why golfers, along with stars from other already enriched sports, have no place in the Olympics.

Think of it this way:  If the Zika mosquito had descended upon Rae’s Creek at Augusta National in April, it strains credulity that any of these stars would have pulled out of the Masters field. That’s because a Masters green jacket is a more precious commodity for professional golfers than a bronze, silver or even a gold medal.

Contrast that with the Big Three Olympic sports: track and field, swimming and gymnastics. No major athlete from those sports has publicly spoken of declining to show up in Rio due to the virus, or any of the other various maladies that may yet infect these Games. Not Usain Bolt, not Michael Phelps, not even a young female (and thus more at-risk) star such as Gabby Douglas. To them, skipping the Olympics would be like … well, like a top-10 golfer skipping the Masters.

The stars of traditional Olympic sports would not miss a Summer Games for any reason other than injury. They plan their entire lives in four-year increments. Even though there are annual international events in these sports, national championships here and world championships there, the Olympics are the highest mountain, with everything else hills and rocks by comparison.

The golfers’ stance on Rio would be unfortunate if it were not so instructive. The Olympics have swelled in size, adding additional costs for the host cities in everything from the size of athlete villages to new stadiums to additional security.   

Putting in a bid for an Olympics has arguably become ill-advised if not irresponsible for city leaders. The Zika pullouts serve as an advisory for the International Olympic Committee to begin eliminating sports and slimming down, making the Summer Games more economically sensible and manageable.

Golf never should have been added to the Olympics because neither side truly needed the other. Golf has four annual majors on two continents, and a sterling international team competition held biennially, the Ryder Cup. An Olympic golf event sandwiched between the British Open and PGA Championship, staged in the midst of 27 other sports in Rio, is the definition of extraneous.

Tennis is an even poorer fit than golf. What makes the Olympics romantic is the notion that the wide world of athletes comes together to compete in one location. Yet this occurs nearly every week in tennis, where the same cast of global characters regularly show up for big tournaments, especially those staged in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York.

It's also time to review the future of Olympic basketball. Among the players choosing not to play for the U.S. this summer are LeBron James, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook -- the best of the best -- for reasons ranging from rest to injuries. But healthy players from other countries are also now tip-toeing away from Olympic competition in favor of preparing for their NBA season, including the 2014-15 NBA Rookie of the Year, Andrew Wiggins of Canada. The specialness of the Dream Team has been lost. 

The risk of injury is real to these players, and the financial risk to their teams is even more acute. Paul George of the Indiana Pacers lost almost an entire season after hurting his leg at a USA Basketball scrimmage in Las Vegas in 2014.  

Some might say that James, Paul and Westbrook could afford to decline to participate in 2016, since they already won Gold Medals in 2012. They could also afford to decline in the most literal sense.   As could Day, McIlroy and the professional golfers.

For these global stars, little rides on the Olympics.  Not their careers, not their legacies, not their financial livelihood. If the stakes are not sufficiently high for a sport’s best athletes to compete in the Olympics, the IOC should extinguish that sport’s artificial flame.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
David Kahn at dbk4@nyu.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net