Poor water conditons and the threat of Zika virus have athletes
and fans questioning the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil.

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will go down as one of the most controversial games in recent history.  Many athletes are saying they’ll opt out of the Rio games, and for good reason.

Since beating out Chicago in 2009 to host the games, Rio has proved to be more like the opposite of an ideal place to host the biggest sporting event in the world.  Extreme water pollution, high susceptibility to contracting the Zika Virus and failure to follow through with promises to fix the water highlight the Rio controversy.

“It’s continued evidence that the International Olympic Committee still has some corruption and still has some major introspection to do,” said Castleton sports administration professor Marybeth Lennox.

The Associated Press conducted tests on the Brazilian waters in July 2015, finding “disease-causing viruses directly linked to human sewage at levels up to 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the U.S. or Europe,” according to an AP article.

“They have cleaned up more than they ever have in the past…but these places are still completely overwhelmed with human viral pathogens.  And these are literally the sights where sailing and all of these things are going to be happening,” said Preston Garcia, a microbiology and immunology professor at Castleton. 

Garcia’s post-doctorate work dealt with vaccinology and infectious disease.

“They’re basically going to be swimming in Brazilian human sewage,” Garcia said.

Untreated sewage flows through storm drains and into sites like Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and Guanabara Bay, where rowing and sailing events will be taking place.  According to a February 2016 Los Angeles Times article, Brazilian officials had promised to have the pollution in these areas cleaned.  

Alarmingly, it’s not just the shorelines, where the pollution enters the water, that are contaminated.  There are consistently high levels of pathogens a mile away from shore, so even deeper waters are not safe.  Normally, the deeper water would dilute the levels of pathogens, but not in Rio waters.

According to an Associated Press article, “athletes who ingest three teaspoons of water have a 99 percent chance of being infected by viruses.”  Effects on the athletes could include gastrointestinal issues and respiratory illness.

“Spectator safety and athlete safety should be paramount, and I’m sure that theoretically it is for the organizing committee in Rio.  I’m just not sure that they quite have the resources to deal with it at this point in time,” Lennox said.

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

As if the viruses in the waters weren’t enough, the recent Zika outbreak was traced back to Brazil.  

“Ground zero, for some reason, is Brazil right now, and it is a major concern for female athletes heading to the games,” Garcia said. 

Normal symptoms of the virus, which has been around for decades, resemble those of a mild flu.  But this time around, Zika has been scientifically linked to causing microcephaly.

Microcephaly is abnormal smallness of the head associated with incomplete brain development in infants.  The World Health Organization has confirmed over 1,046 cases of microcephaly and Zika infection in Brazil alone, far surpassing the totals of any other country. 

“It’s not life-threatening to the female right now, but it is essentially life-altering or threatening to your new-born child,” Garcia said. 

He also said that the virus can be sexually transmitted.  So if a male is infected at the games, he could bring the virus back home and infect his wife, who hasn’t been to Brazil or been bitten by a mosquito any time recently.  

In an interview with Sports Illustrated in February, U.S. women’s national soccer team starting goalie Hope Solo said if she had to decide right then, she wouldn’t go to the games.  She said she “would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child.”  

“It’s respectable if a female athlete chooses not to compete because they aren’t willing to risk getting the virus. I would be disappointed if some of our big name players chose not to participate,” said Kiley Baran, a fan of the U.S. national team and member of the Castleton women’s soccer team.

Chris Chapdelaine, coach of the Castleton women’s soccer team, provided a coaches’ point of view about the possibility of missing key players.

“As a team we have to support their decision whether we agree with it or not.  And we take those who are going to go and we play as a team and we move on.”

Baran finds excitement in the possible changes to the USA line-up.    

“There are a lot of newer faces fighting for a chance to compete in this year’s Olympics and I think they have a lot to offer, so I’ll definitely be interested in seeing how it plays out for some of the new additions to the roster,” she said.

Chapdelaine had a similar take about how opportunity could arise in lieu of possibly missing players.

“We’re talking about the U.S. national team.  There are other younger players that could step up,” Chapdelaine said. “This is why we have a U-23 team, why we have a bench.  Maybe we give a new opportunity to some of these players.”

Will there be backlash to teams possibly having to go without their so-called “best” athletes?

“It’s just a matter of are we truly representing the best of the United States?  And so that’s where I would be disappointed.  But I wouldn’t hold it against the players who stay home,” professor Lennox said.

Lennox, Garcia, Baran and Chapdelaine each said they would not go to Rio to watch the Olympics – that it wasn’t worth the risk.  Time will tell which athletes and how many fans will agree.

“The biggest issue with microbes and infectious disease is that they’re all invisible.  In a political case, we’re all worried about terrorism at these events, but that’s something you can maybe see,” said Garcia. “These are all invisible things you can’t see so literally protecting yourself on a 24-hour basis while you’re there against invisible infections is a problem.”

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