There are gatecrashers coming to the Rio Olympics. Billions of them. And there is very little the organising committee can do to stop them getting in.
The problem is that they are very small – only a few millimetres long, in fact. They are aedes aegypti mosquitoes, transmitters of the Zika virus which, experts suspect, is responsible for miscarriage or microcephaly in newborn babies and the auto-immune disease, Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Of course the 2016 Olympics organising committee is doing its utmost to mitigate the situation. As well as eliminating stagnant water, where the mosquitoes breed, around the competition venues, organisers are advising Olympic teams to keep windows shut, install insect screens, use insect repellents and cover up exposed skin with clothing. They have claimed no expense will be spared in the fight against mosquitoes.
“The cost is not significant,” committee spokesman Mario Andrada said. “Whatever needs to be done for the safety of the athletes and the people that work in the Games, we’ll be ready to pay that cost.”
Rio 2016 chief medical officer Joao Grangeiro does not want people to panic. He said: “The general symptons of the illness – which affect only 20 per cent – are milder than dengue and include headaches, fever and rash, which tend to disappear after about one week. The more serious concern is in relation to pregnant women.”
Organisers are taking advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which admits that the Zika virus outbreak “constitutes a public health emergency of international concern”, but stops short of suggesting athletes and fans should avoid travelling to Rio. WHO director general Margaret Chan said that there was “no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus.” She stressed how the Olympics were being staged during the Brazilian winter “when the drier and cooler climate significantly reduces the presence of mosquitoes and therefore the risk of infection.”
Not everyone is so confident that there will not be health problems. The British Olympic Association has been consulting the London School of Tropical Medicine to reduce the risk of being bitten by mosquitoes. Owing to the risk of infection of unborn babies, the Australian Olympic Committee has told female team members “to consider their options on whether they travel to Rio in August.” The committee added: “We totally understand if a female member of the team chooses not to attend the Games. It is fair to say the women in our team are ‘monitoring the situation’ and will make a final decision closer to the Games.”
It is not just pregnant women who are worried. Brazilian Olympic sailor Fernanda Decnop said that she feared the potential physical effect of the virus. “I read that Zika can affect tendons and joints which would really affect the athlete,” Decnop said. “It is a worry. We cannot risk this during the Olympics, especially if it really affects the joints. That could really hurt our preparations. I put on repellent once a day before leaving the house. But if the outbreak gets worse, I’ll be using more.” The Olympics opening ceremony is on August 5.
Despite all the precautions, it is possible that the virus could worsen considerably before then. What would happen if the WHO changes its mind and advises against travelling to Brazil?
“Well, that is hypothetical and looks very, very unlikely,” an IOC spokesman told SportBusiness International. “At present the WHO is being extremely optimistic. Both the secretary general and the person in charge of global epidemic for WHO believe it is being handled very well in Brazil and they will be great Games.” The worst-case scenario is that the Rio Olympics might be cancelled, postponed or relocated. The economic ramifications of this for Brazil, the IOC and its sponsors would be devastating.
The effect of infectious diseases on sporting events has been analysed in depth in the International Centre for Sport Security Journal. Writing before the current Zika outbreak, Professor James Skinner, director of the Institute for Sport Business at Loughborough University London, and Professor Keith Gilbert, from the School of Health, Sport and Bioscience at the University of East London, both considered what might have happened if the 2008 Beijing Olympics had been cancelled because of avian flu. They stressed the risks of “a global health crisis being downplayed” because of the “potential vested interests of powerful organisations”, such as Olympic sponsors and media companies. They pointed out how the 2013 ebola outbreak, for example, might have threatened a major international sports event. “This creates a tension between protecting the health and wellbeing of the public and the athletes, and the loss of revenue from the cancellation or scaling back of the event,” they added.
The education of athletes taking part was crucial, they said. Event organisers “should be aware that the increased nomadic movement of professional athletes as a consequence of globalisation requires health education programmes to become a mandatory component of an athlete’s induction.”
Previous outbreaks of infectious disease have taken enormous tolls on sporting events. The obvious example is the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, which was relocated to Equatorial Guinea. Morocco had been the original host nation, but its demands for the tournament to be postponed because of the risk of spreading the ebola virus were rejected and the North African nation was sanctioned as a result, including being disqualified from the tournament. New host Equatorial Guinea then supplied extra medical staff and ambulances, and screened fans for signs of infection with thermographic cameras.
The year before, West African nations at the centre of the ebola outbreak pulled out of the Summer Youth Olympics in Nanjing after pressure from the Chinese government.
The SARS outbreak in 2003 had a far more widespread effect. The Fifa Women’s World Cup was relocated from China to USA, forcing the organisers of the football tournament to combine separate matches as double-headers.
Both the top division of the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Ice Hockey Championships, due to be staged in Beijing, and the Arafura Games in Darwin were cancelled. Athletes from several Southeast Asian nations were initially prohibited by the Irish government from attending the Special Olympics in Dublin, but the ban was later relaxed.
— CAF (@CAF_Online) 14 November 2014
Animal diseases affect sports events, too. In 2001 a UK-wide outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease led to the cancellation of many horse races across the British Isles, including the Cheltenham Festival. Ireland’s national rugby union team was forced to postpone its Six Nations Championship matches. The British Rally Championship fell victim, as did the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races, the latter because it was thought to be logistically impossible to disinfect the 40,000 spectators, competitors and their accompanying motorbikes to stop the disease reaching the island.
“The races are worth between £5m (€6.5m/$7.1) and £7m to the island’s economy,” reported Abigail Etim at the Guardian newspaper. “But this is more than counterbalanced by the threat to that economy if there were an outbreak of foot and mouth. All its 250,000 animals would have to be slaughtered, which would cost £50m.” History proves that it is always better to err on the side of caution. Back in 1918 the American city of Philadelphia staged a parade of 200,000 people to raise money for the First World War effort, despite the fact that army troops camped nearby were dropping like flies from Spanish flu. Their nonchalance proved disastrous. Within days there were 600 new cases of flu. A month later there were hundreds of thousands.
Interestingly, one theory suggests that sport is responsible for the Zika virus’s arrival in Brazil in the first place. It is thought Pacific islanders competing in a canoeing competition in Rio in August 2014 might have inadvertently played a role.
Amid all the confusion, one thing is certain, however. Olympic organisers are by no means nonchalant like those early 19th-century Philadelphians.
“Our priority is the health of the athletes, the health of all Brazilians and protection for all those who work at the Olympics,” Andrada said. “We are sure this battle can be won and will not affect the Games.”