SYDNEY (Reuters) - Golfer Marc Leishman said on Thursday he has withdrawn his candidacy for the Rio Olympics, citing the Zika virus and health concerns for his wife, becoming the first Australian athlete to withdraw over the mosquito-borne virus.
Leishman, Australia's number three golfer, was first in the race to qualify for Rio alongside compatriot and world number one Jason Day after former U.S. Masters champion Adam Scott ruled himself out of the tournament last month.
The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) confirmed world number 35 Leishman had become the first prospective Australian Olympian to withdraw from Rio over the Zika virus. There is a strong scientific consensus that Zika can cause microcephaly in newborn babies as well as Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults.
Leishman's wife Audrey suffered toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal illness caused by bacterial infection, in April last year and was still recovering, the 32-year-old golfer said in a statement released on Wednesday U.S.-time.
"Since then Audrey has been prone to infection and is far removed from 100 per cent recovery of her immune system," said Leishman, a title-winner on the U.S. PGA Tour.
"We have consulted with Audrey's physician and due to her ongoing recovery from toxic shock and potential risks associated with the transmission of the Zika virus, it was a difficult yet easy decision not to participate," he said.
Zika has been linked with the birth defect microcephaly that has been sweeping through South and Central America and the Caribbean and making its way north to the United States.
The connection between Zika and microcephaly came to light last fall in Brazil, which has now confirmed more than 1,100 cases of microcephaly that it considers to be related to Zika infections in the mothers.
The AOC said it respected Leishman's decision.
“We understand that family must always come first and we respect Marc’s decision not to play in Rio,” team chef de mission Kitty Chiller said in a statement.
Leishman missed last year's U.S. Masters to be by his wife's side when she was given only a five percent chance of survival.
The 2009 PGA Tour rookie-of-the-year returned to the game after a lengthy absence and went within one putt of winning the British Open.
Last month, Fiji's Vijay Singh, a three-times major winner, also said he would skip Rio due to concerns about Zika.
World number seven Scott also announced his decision to side-step the Olympics last month, although his decision was based on a lack of interest in the tournament's format and the wish to take a break with family after a busy summer schedule.
Louis Oosthuizen and fellow major-winning South African Charl Schwartzel will also miss the tournament in Rio, where golf returns for the first time in 112 years.
Tournament entrants will be finalised on July 11, based on world rankings.
Marcus Fraser, ranked 63rd, is now first in the race in Australia to join Day, who is confirmed for the tournament and enthusiastic about playing in Rio.
“I would be honored to compete in Rio should I qualify for the team," Fraser said in a text message sent to Reuters.
"While I understand the decisions of my fellow Aussie golfers for me it would be a great experience to be a part of."
The Rio Olympics take place from Aug. 5-21.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye in SYDNEY and Ben Everill in LOS ANGELES; Writing by Ian Ransom; Editing by Paul Tait)