Belfast Telegraph

McIlroy to play for Ireland in Rio

Rory McIlroy is set to be the figurehead of Ireland's bid for Olympic glory in Rio 2016 after declaring for the country.

After years of speculation, debate and controversy over what flag he would play under, the 25-year-old has opted for the team of his boyhood and amateur days.

The golf sensation, in Cork for the Irish Open, compared his predicament to that of international rugby players who do not have to make a choice and see the island of Ireland as one team.

His decision - a massive coup for Team Ireland - was widely welcomed with former Irish rugby and British and Irish Lions star Trevor Ringland saying it is time people relaxed about identity in sport.

"The key thing is that he wants to represent all the people of these islands," he said.

McIlroy, who has spoken candidly about the "extremely sensitive and difficult" issue of whether to play for Great Britain or Ireland, announced his plans as preparations got under way at the Fota Island resort.

Born and raised in Holywood, Co Down, the golfer was eligible for both nations.

He had competed for Ireland at youth events, twice in the Golf World Cup and was heavily supported in his teenage years by the Golfing Union of Ireland.

He will now look forward to Rio 2016 with the likes of boxing sensation Katie Taylor and his friend on the fairways Graeme McDowell, a fellow Northern Irishman who will also join Team Ireland.

McIlroy revealed his decision, sparked in part by the images from the World Cup, amid the Open preparations, which were almost derailed when his golf clubs got lost for a while en route from America yesterday.

Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, reacted to the announcement from Lausanne, Switzerland.

"On behalf of Team Ireland, I am thrilled to hear the great news that Rory has declared for the Irish Olympic team for the Rio Games," he said.

"His fantastic talent, brilliant personality and endless energy will be a real boost to all of our athletes. He will be an iconic figure on Team Ireland and undoubtedly will prove hugely popular with all our athletes, no matter what sport they represent.

"We warmly welcome this superb news for Ireland's medal prospects in Rio 2016."

McIlroy said he was more concerned with how his decision would be received at home as opposed to any personal struggles he may have had.

But he said: "Thinking about all the times that I played as an amateur for Ireland and as a boy and everything, I think for me it's the right decision to play for Ireland in 2016."

Sports such as rugby, cricket, hockey, swimming and amateur boxing treat the island of Ireland as one but the option remains for any Northern Ireland athletes to compete for Team Ireland or Team GB at Olympic Games.

Some base their decision on identity, some the support shown to them through the years and others because it is the best decision for sporting reasons.

Peter Sheridan, chief executive of the cross community organisation Cooperation Ireland - a peacebuilding charity which facilitated the handshake between Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the Queen, said: " Rory McIlroy is a wonderful sporting ambassador for these Islands and his right to choose should be respected and supported like anyone else."

One of the island's star boxers Paddy Barnes, from north Belfast, competed under the Irish flag twice at the Olympics and will box in the Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland.

Mr Ringland, who promotes cross-community work with Cooperation Ireland, said sports fans should looking at the 30 gold medals Northern Ireland could claim from the last Olympics rather than identity.

"Rory McIlroy is very proud to come from Ireland and proud to be British and Irish, and in competing for Team Ireland he will also be representing Northern Ireland," he said.

"He is a reflection of a modern generation in that he's both British and Irish but particularly he's Northern Irish and an Ulsterman. But he's representing Holywood first and foremost so hands off."

Mr Ringland, a solicitor in Northern Ireland, also drew comparisons with world class cricket as Irish players such as Eoin Morgan have been called up for Test matches by England in recent years.

He added: "We should respect his decision but we realise that identities in Northern Ireland are far more complex than people fully appreciate and we should relax a bit."

Michael Ring, junior sports minister in the Irish Government, said: "I am delighted Rory has declared for Ireland."

McIlroy in the past expressed concern about the decision and at one stage it appeared as though golf's ruling body the R&A would take the choice away from him and point him to the team of his youth.

He even suggested at one point abandoning the idea of playing at the Olympics.

He added: "I've had a lot of time on my own the last few weeks and just been thinking about it a lot. It's something that's been quite important to me and something that I needed to make some sort of decision or some sort of stand on it.

"Just weighing up everything, and thinking back about the times that I played for Ireland and won the European Team championship with Ireland, won a lot of great amateur titles representing Ireland, I just thought why change that? Basically it's just a continuation of what I've always done."

The welcome was not as warm as would have been expected from boxer Barnes who took to social media to question the decision.

The Belfast man raised a few eyebrows with this post on his Twitter account: "The reason I don't like McIlroy representing Ireland at the Olympics is because he doubted going for Ireland, you should be proud to!"

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