The schedule was crowded to begin with, but here’s another event for anyone traveling to Rio this summer for the Olympics: Russian roulette with the Zika virus.
Win, and you get a stress free trip home and some nice memories of the games.
Lose, and you don’t even want to think about what might happen to you or your unborn child.
The Olympics in Brazil always seemed like a sketchy idea, even before anyone knew what the Zika virus was or the terrible health problems it can cause. Grandiose plans to clean up Rio and its waters never came to fruition, and an investigation by The Associated Press showed some athletes will be competing for gold medals in sewage infested waters.
Now, less than three months before opening ceremonies, the Brazilian economy is in shambles, with inflation rampant and unemployment on the rise. The country is also mired in a deep political crisis that culminated Thursday in a vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff.
Meanwhile, a handful of golfers say they won’t be going to Rio, and a group of other athletes is demanding that Russians be banned from competing unless there is absolute proof that they are not doping. There have been deep cuts in the security budget, adding to the fears that always exist that terrorists will target the world’s biggest sporting event.
Add to that new allegations of shenanigans in the bidding for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the resignation last week of the head of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, and a report that Russian athletes and doctors switched urine samples in Sochi to escape detection and the Olympic movement is besieged on a number of fronts.
Not that you would know it by the official — and incredibly tone deaf — pronouncements coming out of IOC headquarters in Switzerland.
“We have seen the great progress being made in Rio de Janeiro and we remain confident about the success of the Olympic Games in August,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement Thursday.
No, the official party line hasn’t changed, and there are no expectations that it will. There’s too much money at stake in the lucrative business of operating the Olympics, including the $1.22 billion that NBC paid to televise the games in the United States.
Besides, doping scandals and bribery are nothing new to the Olympic movement. The games have not only survived but thrived through a succession of various scandals, boycotts and even the 1972 Munich terrorist attack.
What they haven’t had is a health risk as frightening as the Zika virus. Scientists are still learning about Zika, but it has already been proven to cause a range of debilitating defects in babies born with abnormally small heads and neurological problems, and there are indications it can cause a rare paralyzing — and potentially fatal — condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults.
The World Health Organization issued a warning this week for pregnant women not to travel to areas with Zika, and said others should take precautions to avoid the mosquitoes that spread the virus.
A Canadian health expert went even further, calling for the games to be moved or delayed until the Zika virus is better understood or brought under control.
“But for the games, would anyone recommend sending an extra half a million visitors into Brazil right now?” University of Ottawa professor and public health specialist Amir Attaran said in an article published in the Harvard Public Health Review.
Yet soon the world will descend on Brazil, the epicenter of the outbreak. Thousands of athletes in their prime — including a lot of women of child bearing age — will travel from countries around the world to compete for gold medals.
Some will win. But some might really lose.
Meanwhile, Olympic officials stubbornly plow ahead as if nothing is amiss. Bring mosquito repellent and wear long sleeves, they say, and everything should be just fine.
Well, here’s a news flash: Everything is not fine. And there’s no reason to trust Olympic officials and their guarantees when they can’t even get their own act together and have a big financial stake in the games beginning in Rio on Aug. 5 as planned.
For fans and family members of athletes, it comes down to this: Are the Olympics so important that you will gamble with your health to attend them?
And should the world’s best athletes and their future families do the same?
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg