By Pedro Fonseca
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Golf’s return to the Olympic Games next month for the first time in 112 years has been marred by the absence of the sport’s leading players and a court battle over potential environmental damage resulting from a new course in Brazil.
Players, including the world’s top four, are turning up their noses at the Olympics, citing concerns over the mosquito-borne Zika virus even though scientists have said there is little risk visitors will be infected during the Games, which start on Aug. 5.
The golfers’ lack of enthusiasm comes after the host city of Rio de Janeiro built a 18-hole course on 58,000 square meters of natural park in the Barra de Tijuca neighborhood.
“It saddens me profoundly that a space destined for conservation has been transformed for the Olympic Games,” said prosecutor Marcus Leal, coordinator of a group trying to annul the course’s environmental license.
“Now it is a double defeat for the city: sport and environment,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Intended to add glamour to the Games, the International Olympic Committee’s 2009 decision to restore golf instead brought more controversy to a host city that is already fighting economic problems, Zika, polluted waters, and corruption accusations.
Despite the golfers’ stated concerns over Zika, Olympic organizers say the athletes are spurning the event because they see no financial incentive.
“They are not coming because there’s no prize money,” said Rio Games chief Carlos Nuzman, at an event in Rio last weekend.
World number one Jason Day, second-ranked Dustin Johnson, number three Jordan Spieth and fourth-ranked Rory McIlroy are among several top players to have pulled out of the Olympics.
Zach Johnson, speaking at last week’s British Open which he won in 2015, has questioned whether the sport truly belongs on the Games schedule.
Rio City Hall defends the golf course, and says the International Golf Federation recommended building a new course rather than revamping an already existing one. The city built a new park to compensate for the area the course was built on.
(Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Rex Gowar)