“Summer Olympics 2016: Come for the poisonous water, stay for the mosquito-borne viral birth defects!”
That may not be the most inviting slogan for Rio de Janeiro in August, but it’s increasingly true. And as the event approaches, it’s becoming clear that old promises to remedy the very real dangers were empty. These games are going to be toxic, in one way or another, with athletes at risk despite platitudes from nervous officials.
This is bad, and competitors will have to decide if they want to expose themselves to the risk of serious illness. There’s no way around it. The games cannot be moved, and will not be postponed despite being held in a fundamentally unsafe place. And this is before any other security concerns.
First, the water. As of now, the long-distance swimming, sailing and rowing events will take place in the viral and bacterial equivalent of raw sewage, the venues located in receptacles for untreated waste from Rio’s toilets and sinks. An analysis conducted by the Associated Press revealed high levels of adenovirus, rotavirus and enterovirus, as well as fecal coliforms associated with cholera, typhoid, dysentery and hepatitis A. One U.S. researcher who examined the testing results described “an infection risk of 99 percent.”
In the small sample size of recent competition, athletes there are already falling ill with alarming frequency. German sailor Eric Heil contracted MRSA — a flesh-eating bacteria — after a test event there last summer. Both the International Sailing Federation and World Rowing Federation reported large numbers of participants there succumbing to various illnesses causing diarrhea, fevers and vomiting.
Brazilian authorities have promised all kinds of action, but nothing material has been done.
Now there is another threat, the Zika virus carried by mosquitoes that has become an international health emergency, as declared by the World Health Organization. On Tuesday the head of Kenya’s Olympic committee said his country could pull out of the games if the current outbreak of the virus — known to cause microcephaly in babies from infected mothers — reaches epidemic levels.
It may be there already, however, with hundreds of cases of infants born with deformed brains confirmed in Brazil, and thousands more suspected.
According to a Reuters report, the United States Olympic Committee held a conference call late last month during which the heads of the relevant sports federations were told that concerned athletes and staff should consider staying home if they feared for their health in Rio. A USOC spokesman has denied that such direction was given, but Reuters attributed the information to two people who participated in the call.
Directly quoted was USA Fencing’s chairman/president Donald Anthony, who said the federations were told by the USOC that competitors should skip the games “if they don’t feel comfortable going. Bottom line.”
As no surprise, the same people who said they’d try to clean up the water are now promising the impossible — to take care of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads the disease, and also carries viruses similar to dengue fever and Chikungunya. Half a million foreign visitors are expected, many of whom will also be traveling to other areas of Brazil and other countries on their respective trips, rendering meaningless any hopeful effort in Rio to find every larva hatching in every puddle.
US Soccer star Hope Solo told SI.com Tuesday that as of right now, she’s out.
“If I had to make the choice today, I wouldn’t go,” she said. “I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child. Competing in the Olympics should be a safe environment for every athlete, male and female alike. Female athletes should not be forced to make a decision that could sacrifice the health of a child.”
While there are any number of better spokespeople for health and safety than the criminally abusive Solo, the fact is that she’s absolutely right, and it doesn’t appear that there’s anything that can remedy the situation.
Rio mayor Eduardo Paes told reporters that their mid-winter August conditions will mean lower mosquito populations there. But Reuters debunked that quickly with a review of the city’s public health records that indicates that the month has been as bad or worse than usual peak months for infection rates.
It is not fair to anyone involved in the events to force them to endanger themselves.
Swimming and boating in a roiling stew of pathogens and human waste, while trying to fend off an infectious, damaging disease brought by one bite from a ubiquitous insect. Even after years spent dedicated to reaching this competition, it really doesn’t sound like a difficult decision at all.