Kelly: Cancelling the Rio Olympics over Zika seems unlikely – for now

In late January, the United States Olympic Committee told its member bodies that any American athlete sufficiently worried about contracting Zika virus in Brazil should not go to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

No one should attend “if they don’t feel comfortable going. Bottom line,” USA Fencing head Donald Anthony told Reuters, summarizing the message.

Top aide to Brazil president says Zika a minimal threat for Olympics

This is the global leader of the Olympic movement telling its own competitors to think twice about competing at a Games. Given the stakes, the timing (still six months from the opening ceremony) and what’s currently known about the effects of the outbreak (very little in concrete terms), there’s an implication here – that if you are concerned, you are right to be.

It’s more than caution. It’s an invitation to panic.

Until that happened, Zika was a growing problem for organizers. It’s now an existential threat. If we maintain the current trajectory – tilting daily toward dread – there’s isn’t going to be a 2016 Olympics.

Canada is playing wait-and-see. Two weeks ago, Canadian Olympic Committee chief medical officer Bob McCormack called Zika “an issue … but it’s only one of several issues we’re following.”

On Monday, perhaps sensing that anything you put on the record about this now may be regretted in the near future, a COC spokesperson declined to comment on the actions taken by the Americans.

As far as Canada is concerned, preparations for Brazil continue as normal. Based on reports coming out of South America and elsewhere in the Zika hot zone, that approach won’t work much longer.

There is a disaster foretold for every major sports event. Most recently, in Sochi at the 2014 Winter Games, it was black widow suicide bombers and feral dog packs. The terrorists didn’t show up and the dogs were the most hospitable locals we encountered.

Our collective risk assessment tends to begin red-lining about a year out, peaks a month or two beforehand and then recedes as we ask ourselves if we’re really going to skip all the fun because we’re worried the hotel maid is strapped with TNT. The answer is always “No.”

Zika is different.

The effects we think we know about – microcephaly in the children of some pregnant women who contract it – produce nightmarish visuals. Everything else is mysterious. How quickly will it spread? Who is most at risk? How long do the effects last? How is it transferred? None of this is yet clear.

El Salvador, which is currently seeing an enormous spread of the virus, is telling women to avoid getting pregnant for two years. Two years is an awfully long time for a country to go without children. Is that a smart assessment? Who knows? Scientists are still trying to get their arms around the problem, and so are disinclined to reassure anyone. This is the time ripest for fear.

If you told Olympic athletes they would catch a serious strain of flu at the Olympics, or that there was a statistically significant risk of contracting cholera or dysentery, none would flinch. In fact, we have done that.

For the past year, competitors have been warned about raw sewage in outdoor aquatic venues in Rio. They’re swimming in human waste. So warned, they wrapped themselves in plastic sheeting, dosed themselves with antibiotics and got out there anyway. No Olympic competitor has gone on record saying they planned to skip Brazil because of the filthy water.

Flu, cholera and dysentery kill millions of people every year, while Zika has perhaps killed a handful. On its face, it seems less fraught (which may explain Brazil’s initially blasé attitude to the problem). Athletes and other professionals are willing to take a chance, even a considerable one, in order to do their jobs.

But Zika is more unnerving since there is the possibility that, in contracting it, you are taking a risk on behalf of someone else – your child. That’s an entirely separate moral formulation. Most people will not do that.

Almost every female competitor in Rio is in the most at-risk cohort – women of procreative age. There have been at least two cases where it’s believed men have infected their sexual partners with Zika.

You can’t hold an Olympics without women, or without men who have wives or girlfriends.

If a critical mass of those people (which is to say, just about all people) decide to pass on Rio, it will collapse. How many absentees would that worst-case scenario require? Twenty per cent of the total? Thirty? It’s probably less than you think. All it may take is a few high-profile competitors to convince many more not to bother.

This is not to say Rio 2016 is doomed. We could hear in a week or a month that the virus has been contained, that infection rates are dipping or that some of the early fears about effects are unfounded. One decisive news conference could turn this the other way. And the athletes may collectively decide they don’t care about the risks, and that the chance at glory is too great to pass up.

But at the moment, it’s easier to see it getting worse. Once told we are right to be cautious – which the USOC has just done – most of us will be.

Athletes also know that if they are supported by their governing bodies, they have the power to shape events. What if they all decide they’d prefer to delay the Olympics, or see it held in a different country?

Given the right pressures and spokespeople, that movement could gather a great deal of momentum. For those invested in a Brazilian Games, there is no way to rebut it without seeming self-serving.

A move to cancel the Olympics would require some precipitating event – an unequivocal warning from a body such as the World Health Organization, or a major country announcing its intention to avoid the Games. Then things could go sideways in a hurry.

It remains unlikely for now. But “for now” has become a rapidly moving target.

The COC is right to be wary. The situation is fluid, the problem is designed for alarmism and the only way to really get it wrong is to be seen playing cavalierly with the lives of people who don’t get the chance to decide what risks they’re willing to take.


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Courtesy: The Globe And Mail