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McIlroy's Dilemma

The Olympics is an administrative nightmare for the Northern Irishman

Posted Jan 08, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


It is quite shameful that Rory McIlroy has felt it necessary to consider opting out of the 2016 Olympic Games, rather than run the risk of offending his many friends and admirers on the island of Ireland.  Yet the response is perfectly reasonable against a background of golf administration which must rank as the most ham-fisted in the history of European sport.
Should he declare for Ireland, or should he throw in his lot with the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team?  Whichever way he turns, McIlroy will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  So, by way of better understanding the minefield confronting the player, we will attempt some enlightenment.

In the absence of a single administrative body for men’s and women’s golf in Ireland, a special arrangement has had to be put in place specifically to deal with the 2016 Olympics. And the same applies in Great Britain.  These new umbrella bodies, comprising representatives of men’s, women’s and professional golf will be asked to represent the game on the respective Olympic committees.  In Ireland, for instance, this job will be done by the Golfing Union of Ireland, the Irish Ladies Golf Union and the PGA Irish Region.  In Britain, it will involve the relevant organisations in England, Scotland and Wales.

Getting the picture?  In the meantime, they are also being asked to select male and female representatives to compete in the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China.  And in an Irish context, what if a leading candidate happens to be from Northern Ireland, as would have been the case with McIlroy seven or eight years ago?  By way of precedent, it’s not difficult to imagine the can of worms this would open for such a player, were he or she in line for a place in the Olympics proper, further down the road.  Especially if they happened to consider themselves Northern Irish and British.

A problem of identity for Irish golfers can be traced back to 1949.  County Wicklow-born Harry Bradshaw, runner-up to Bobby Locke in the Open Championship that year at Royal St George’s, was not considered for the Ryder Cup team because he was an “overseas” player.  Nor was he eligible for the 1951 Ryder Cup, for the same reason.  It was only when he represented the British PGA on a four-man tour to South Africa the following year, and Henry Cotton pointed out the silliness of the situation, that Bradshaw eventually gained Ryder Cup honours in 1953.

That was in the “British” Ryder Cup team.  And Christy O’Connor Senior, who was born in Galway and has lived in Dublin since 1959, made his 10th successive Ryder Cup appearance at Muirfield in 1973 before the team was eventually re-named the “Great Britain and Ireland” line-up. 

So many similarly contradictory situations have occurred over the years, that McIlroy is entitled to have a somewhat blurred view of his circumstances. The European Tour, for instance, list him as a “Northern Ireland” player, choosing a political designation as opposed to English, Scottish and Welsh players who are so designated on a geographical basis. And by way of emphasising the point, they add a flag carrying the cross of St George and the red hand of Ulster topped by a crown.  Somebody should inform them that this particular flag became redundant in 1973 and that the official flag of Northern Ireland is, in fact, the Union Jack.

Notwithstanding that, the Tour didn’t seem to have a problem with McIlroy and Graeme McDowell representing “Ireland” in the 2011 World Cup in China. And despite being citizens of Northern Ireland, they were expected to march in the opening ceremony behind the tricolour, which is the flag of the Republic of Ireland.  It says much for the decency of both players that neither of them objected.

I’m sure there have been numerous players from Northern Ireland who could still feel British while representing Ireland at rugby over the years, seeing it as a geographical rather than a political entity.  And the same has probably been true of sports such as hockey and amateur golf.  Nobody was attempting to compromise their emotional identity in these circumstances. The Olympics, however, is a very different matter.  

The so-called Ireland team in the Olympics is, in fact, a Republic of Ireland team, so designated by its political boundary.  Just as the other team on these islands is designated “Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Sure, McIlroy would be eligible to represent the Irish team, but is it fair to expect him to do so, given that he feels greater emotional ties to Britain than to the Republic?  Meanwhile, an anxiety not to offend is emphasised by his suggestion that, ideally, he would like to play for Northern Ireland, if such a team existed.  Sadly for him, it doesn’t.

David Feherty put his finger on the problem when he said: “I think most people search for an identity and if you want to be British in Northern Ireland, you can be.”   In other words, it is an entirely personal decision.  That is what McIlroy is trying to tell us, but an administrative mess won’t allow him to do so with a clear conscience.

- Dermot Gilleece

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