Mike Rowbottom: Zika virus means Rio 2016 is like Delhi 2010 revisited for prospective Olympians

 

There is a pattern to bad publicity before major sporting events. A year or so out the previously optimistic tone will dip amid stories of construction delays, dissatisfaction over ticket distribution, budgets running out of control, rumours of contract corruption and misdemeanours in the awarding of the event to the hosts.

As the Opening Ceremony draws closer at hand, the stories intensify. Thus the 2004 Athens Olympics were to take place in a series of building sites across the Greek capital. (In the event it was only the spaces around the stadiums which resembled building sites.)  Thus the Beijing 2008 Olympics were to get underway in a permanent, paralysing haze of pollution. (A prediction largely dispelled thanks to the strategic use of more than 1,000 rockets containing silver iodide to “seed” clouds and prompt rain). 

London 2012, of course, was set to become an ongoing security fiasco following the spectacular inability of the G4S group entrusted with arrangements (step forward, by the left, quick maaarch…the Royal Marines.)

With just 183 days to go until the next summer Olympics get underway, Rio 2016 has already experienced an intensifying level of criticism for all-too-familiar issues – spiralling budgets, slipping deadlines, health concerns over the quality of water for the sailing, rowing and canoeing events.

Some of the criticisms cannot be faulted. You can’t argue with an announcement by organisers of 30 per cent cuts to the budget. You can’t argue with an Olympic Stadium that is still well off completion and minus electricity and running water due to unpaid utility bills. 

But the latest problem to beset Rio 2016 – a spread of the Zika virus to the point where the World Health Organization this week declared it a public health emergency – has turned the drama into a crisis.

Sailors, rowers and canoeists bound for the Rio Games have already been put into a position of uncertainty over the pollution evident at their respective venues in Guanabara Bay and the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon.

Evidence that it has been the cause of sickness among some of those taking part in rowing and canoeing test events has not been conclusive – but it is a constant cause of worry for those potential 2016 Olympians.

In this respect, the mosquito-borne Zika virus is the water pollution problem writ large – a concern now likely to lie in the back of the mind of every athlete concerned with these Games.

There is currently no vaccine or medication to prevent infection with the Zika virus, which is linked with the birth of babies with brain disorders and undersized heads.

The official message is that the Zika virus provides no risk to athletes or spectators, other than pregnant women, although Rio 2016 communications director Mario Andrada has advised that athletes and tourists should wear appropriate clothing, close windows and use repellent.

He also pointed out that August, when the Games take place, is the Brazilian winter, when mosquito numbers fall sharply.

But as the Rio authorities set about fumigating and eradicating the watery breeding grounds of the Aedes mosquito, whose bite spreads the virus, Olympians are taking stock of the latest piece of bad news from Brazil.

Zimbabwe’s double Olympic backstroke champion Kirsty Coventry told BBC World: “It seems like a terrible virus, especially for pregnant women, but I believe there is enough time to get a better understanding of what is going on.”

Britain’s London 2012 rowing gold medallist in the women’s double sculls, Katherine Grainger, who is attempting to qualify for Rio 2016, said the situation was “sad”, adding: “From a selfish point of view, this is the culmination of our careers where we try and make our mark on the world of sport. Yet suddenly you have this flip side which is quite a serious health hazard and potential risk. I think it is important to keep informed but not to raise the fear factor.”

The 40-year-old Scot, who earned silver medals at three successive Games before London 2012, has all the experience and independence of mind any athlete could require to take a balanced decision over the risks.

But even Grainger will not be immune to the pressures to take the party line, as voiced by Britain’s 2012 modern pentathlon silver medallist Samantha Murray, who said she had been assured by British officials that “everything is being done to prepare the team”.

Such concerns put sportsmen and women under extreme pressure, particularly those involved in team sports or sports which form part of a wider team.

In October 2001, amid security concerns in the jittery atmosphere following the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, six Chelsea players – England full back Graeme Le Saux, French internationals Marcel Desailly, Emmanuel Petit and William Gallas, plus Iceland’s Eidur Gudjohnsen and Spain’s Albert Ferrer – chose not to fly to Israel for a Champions League football match against Hapoel Tel Aviv. Thankfully the trip passed without untoward incident.

The current situation concerning the Zika virus is reminiscent of the atmosphere around the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, which suffered from virtually every classic pre-Opening Ceremony problem of the modern sporting event, and encountered a particular crisis with the sharp rise of sufferers from Dengue Fever, another mosquito-borne disease with potentially fatal consequences.

As in Rio, infected mosquitoes bred in areas of standing water, and Delhi was unfortunate in that the rainy season extended far longer than usual in the weeks before the Games were due to start.

The fact that the Athletes’ Village was located on the riverbed of the Yamuna River, a natural habitat for mosquitoes, was hardly calculated to inspire confidence.

This threat to health, allied to fears over security heightened by an incident in Delhi which left two Taiwanese men wounded after attackers on a motorbike had opened fire on a tourist bus, provoked Australia’s quadruple Olympic swimming champion Dawn Fraser to call on the nation’s athletes to boycott the Games.

A fortnight before the Games were due to begin, Australia’s then world discus champion, Dani Samuels, announced that she was withdrawing from Delhi 2010 because of fears over her health and safety.

Referring to the gun attack, Samuels’ manager Hayden Knowles said: “The situation has been bothering her for some time and the events of the weekend made it real.”

As things turned out, again thankfully, there was no subsequent attack and the dengue fever cases began to dwindle, although at least one athlete was diagnosed with the fever, which can be fatal if incurred a second time.

In retrospect, then, the actions of the Chelsea six, or Dani Samuels, appear unnecessarily cautious. But only in retrospect.

I covered the Delhi Games, and I confess there were moments early in the proceedings when, replete with all my anti-mosquito repellents, I felt distinctly uneasy being in the city.

As members of the England press team, we were issued with red regulation t-shirts bearing the Team England logo – and told it was not a good idea to be seen wearing them in public because of potential security risks.

I recall too, the unease I felt when travelling to an early event on one of the brightly-logoed press buses and getting jammed in marketplace traffic for quarter-of-an-hour. For that time, I felt we were sitting ducks.

My colleagues and I subsequently transferred our allegiance to taxis and then, fabulously as it turned out, the even smaller “tuc tucs” for hire, which spun their way through the traffic like demented dodgems.

Misplaced fears, then. But they were real enough at the time. By the same token, these are challenging days for those athletes whose co-ordinates are now locked onto Rio 2016.

 

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