Does Zika-Avoider Rory McIlroy Owe Brazil for Skipping Rio?

One Brazilian hospital is straight-up asking for money.

Getty Images / Andrew Redington

A week ago, the world’s number four golfer Rory McIlroy, who’s likely to return to the top of the standings in the near future, publicly announced he was pulling out of the Rio Olympics because of concerns about the Zika virus. Now, he’s being guilt tripped for his decision. In an open letter from the CEO of Brazil’s Little Prince Children’s Hospital — a site he was supposed to visit during his travels — he’s been asked to transform his “personal concerns about Zika into a practical concern” and rethink his itinerary. The letter, which tiptoes right up to begging, raises interesting questions about what we’re considering practical as a potent disease spreads.

The hospital’s CEO, José Alvaro da Silva Carneiro, seems to want many things, but chief among them is financial support; he was hoping McIlroy would play a fundraising round of golf. That’s not a bad idea given that Brazil, as a nation, is bleeding money and Olympics tickets aren’t selling (by last count, only 4 million of its 6 million seats had been sold). The Games cost $9.7 billion in public and private funds, and the costs of battling Zika and dealing with its devastating effects are mounting every day. Name-dropping Pele, the Brazilian soccer legend who currently supports the hospital’s Medical Research Institute, Carneiro asked McIlroy for his “humanity and support” toward the mothers and children in Brazil and around the world that could benefit from his support of Zika research.

In his letter, Carneiro also pointed out that McIlroy’s support would also benefit people in Africa, Europe, and any other region that is susceptible to Zika’s spread. The case he makes is a legitimate one. Brazil is footing the bill to keep the virus from spreading to countries all over the world. At the same time, though, characterizing McIlroy’s decision to pull out of the Olympics as due to “personal concerns” isn’t quite right. McIlroy does seem to be personally concerned about the virus, sure, but it’s ultimately a practical consideration. The math is personal but the variables are very real.

“I’ve come to realize that my health and my family’s health comes before anything else,” McIlroy said last week. “Even though the risk of infection from the Zika virus is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take.”

Right now, though Brazil’s made significant efforts to control the spread of the Zika virus, there is still not much athletes and attendees at the Rio Olympics can do to prevent infection other than avoiding mosquito bites. Several vaccine candidates are being developed globally, but at best, large-scale human trials won’t begin until after the Olympics’ end. As far as scientists can tell, women who plan on getting pregnant are most at risk — the link between infection, pregnancy, and microcephaly has been confirmed — but the long-term risks for both men and women remain unclear.

Faced with these unknowns, many other athletes — including the NBA’s Steph Curry and Lebron James — have also opted out of Rio 2016. While scientists scramble to figure out how to mitigate the spread and effects of the disease, the wisest thing athletes and prospective Olympics visitors can do is make like McIlroy and, after assessing the data, make a decision about what will keep them safe. If it bothers them that their absence could lower ticket sales, putting Brazil deeper in the hole, they should know that there’s at least one hospital that needs money badly enough to try to publicly call out golfers.

Is donating practical? Depends on how you look at it. But it’s certainly a good thing to do.

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