Graeme McDowell is, by whatever metric you care to apply, a bright and articulate individual. Self-aware in a way few athletes are, he makes for a shrewd and canny interviewee. Measured, non-confrontational: he usually excels at tip-toeing through minefields.
Consider it indicative, then, of the extent to which the question of Northern identity remains one with no easy answers that mere mention of the 2016 Olympics can reduce a speaker of McDowell’s abundant ability to the crudest buck-passing.
Speaking on the eve of the BMW Masters in Shanghai, the 2010 US Open champion suggested the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should intervene somehow to quell the simmering controversy surrounding his and Rory McIlroy’s competitive allegiance.
“We’re kind of in a unique scenario in Northern Ireland in that we have one foot on each team. I think it’s going to be a lot easier if someone makes the decision for us.
“The Olympic committee should step in and say that `You guys are either playing for Ireland or you’re playing for Great Britain.”‘
The idea that the IOC should mediate or impose a nationality on McDowell and McIlroy is, frankly, ridiculous. The decision is a matter of personal conscience and, technically speaking, not remotely unique when viewed in the broader context of international sport.
They’re also entirely free to decide; no legal or legislative sanctions await them.
It’s public opinion that remains the only barrier to progress on the issue, with a significant majority of the Irish population, both North and South, retaining a narrow-minded determination to read personal decisions in light of an increasingly irrelevant political dialectic.
An athlete’s unwillingness to court controversy, however serious it appears in prospect (sample the comments thread on this article), is hardly grounds for some form of international intervention.
There’s an opportunity here, I think, for both players’ to embrace the uncomfortable role in which they’ve been cast and use the unique leverage afforded them — each straddles the fault-line separating the North’s rival communities — to popularise and legitimate a more current, post-political vision of Northern identity.