Rory McIlroy left a room of sports writers open-mouthed on Tuesday with the stunning revelation that he will represent Ireland in the Olympics in Tokyo next year.
Two years after telling one of Ireland’s leading newspapers that he resented the Olympics and felt no connection to either the British or the Irish flag — ‘I want to stay away from flags,’ he commented — the 30-year-old completed the most remarkable about-turn.
‘I’m excited to be going to the Olympics and I’m excited to play for Ireland,’ he said.
He certainly wasn’t excited in January 2017, when he disclosed to the Irish Independent his response to Justin Rose, who won gold in Brazil in 2016. Rose had asked McIlroy whether he felt he had missed out on not playing in Rio, when golf made its return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904.
‘I said to Justin, if I had been on that podium listening to the Irish flag or the British flag, I would have felt uncomfortable either way,’ said McIlroy at the time.
‘I don’t know the words to either anthem, I don’t feel a connection to either flag. I resent the Olympics because of the position it puts me in, and whether that’s right or wrong, that’s how I feel.’
McIlroy’s chequered history with the Olympics began from the moment in 2009 when it was announced that golf would make its return. He caused a storm of headlines around the world when he revealed to this newspaper in 2011 that he felt ‘more British than Irish.’
Such was the depth of outrage felt south of the border, McIlroy declared he would play for Ireland in Rio, only to pull out, citing the Zika virus that was ravaging Brazil.
At a petulant press conference at the Open at Royal Troon, just a month before Rio, he said that he wouldn’t watch the golf at the Olympics. ‘I’ll only watch the stuff that matters,’ he said.
To be fair to McIlroy, the turmoil is indicative of a high-profile sportsman from Northern Ireland placed in an impossible position, knowing full well he will stir up deep feelings no matter what he decides.
Two years ago, he admitted his exasperation being asked about the Olympics at Troon. ‘It was one question after another about the Olympics, Olympics, Olympics,’ he said. ‘I thought I had got out of it and it came up again. I could just feel myself go boom and I let them have it.’
It looked to be heading that way again on Tuesday when he was asked which country he would represent.
‘The same one that I said a few years ago,’ he responded, tetchily.
Later on, when the subject came around again, he was more forthcoming, indicating the degree of thought that went into this astonishing U-turn.
‘I think as a young boy it was always my dream to play for Ireland,’ he began. ‘It’s the same as the rugby players. There’s players that play for Ulster but they want to play for Ireland, because it’s seen as a whole island sport.
‘So, when you put the Olympics into the equation and there’s a choice to be made, you really have to start thinking about your values and your beliefs. You have to delve a bit deeper. It’s not just a superficial decision. It’s something that you have to really believe in. I’ve thought about that for a long time, and in the end it came down to when I was a little boy and I got that first call up to the Ireland national squad.
‘So, it’s going to be a great experience and probably a bit nostalgic because it will take me back. It’s going to be cool.’