Doubting the participation of the pros

Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

The lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil continually festered concerns as the Aug. 5 opening ceremonies approached.

Canada’s Ice In Our Veins campaign has been heartwarming, but it has been heavily overshadowed by the potential problems of the host city. From polluted waters and the threat of the Zika virus to potential security threats, doping scandals and multiple funding issues, there’s been a lot of negative pre-Games coverage.

One issue that has garnered much mainstream media attention has been the constant flow of high profile athletes withdrawing from participation, which adds fuel to the question: should professional athletes take part in the Olympics?

The return of golf to the Olympics for the first time since 1904 has been entirely overshadowed because each of the top four ranked golfers in the world, and 20 other notable players, have withdrawn. Most cite health concerns, but many also cited scheduling, because let’s face it, the Olympics is not as high on the priority list as the upcoming FedEx Cup or Ryder Cup.

To further support the naysayers’ argument, the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic takes place on the same dates as the Olympic golf, which begs the question how much does the golf world value having their sport in the Games? Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, one of those not in attendance, admitted he will watch the Olympics, but not golf, just “the stuff that matters.”

Basketball is facing a similar challenge. Unanimous MVP Steph Curry will not suit up for team USA nor will NBA stars LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and James Harden. Kamloops’ Kelly Olynyk missed out on helping Canada at the qualifying tournament and, like many absentees, the reason was an injury.

Fewer basketball players, compared to golfers, have Zika-related concerns but this is their off-season —the time to heal the damages between the seasons that net the multi-million dollar contracts. A gold medal would be a nice accomplishment, but it’s not their ultimate goal.

American rower and Rio competitor Gevvie Stone penned an article for The Players’ Tribune ahead of her departure for the Olympics and clearly stated her participation was never in doubt and summed up the importance of the Olympics compared to the “men with serious salaries.”

“I simply think that those of us who are from sports where the Olympics is the pinnacle of competition look at the issues in Rio differently,” Stone wrote.

For a long time the athletes playing in professional leagues weren’t even eligible to participate in the Olympics. NBA players were allowed at the Olympics beginning in 1992 and NHL players have been permitted since 1998, although there are doubts whether they will even attend in 2018.

Baseball was removed from the Olympics following the 2008 Games in Beijing and MLB players were never in attendance. Soccer, the most popular international sport, has an age limit of 23 which rules out most of the top talent.

So instead, let’s focus on the athletes who only enter the major international spotlight once every four years.

Let’s see if sprinter Andre De Grasse can replicate his Pan Am Games success against a stacked 100-metre field, if swimmer Ryan Cochrane can win an elusive gold after silver and bronze in each of the last Olympic Games, if the women’s basketball team can replicate their incredible gold medal runs at the 2015 FIBA Americas and Pan Am Games, or if Kamloops’ Catherine Pendrel can reach the podium for the first time in her third straight Olympics appearance.

Because when the Maple Leaf is atop the podium, it doesn’t take a mainstream star to win the nation’s hearts.