Rio Golf Course a year later
July 27, 2017 Guanabara bay. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Eight months before the start of the Rio Olympics, I wrote a post entitled: “Brazil’s Olympian Challenge: Everything.”

Unemployment in Brazil was 10%. Inflation was 10%. Brazil’s credit rating was junk status. The currency had devalued by a third at that point in December 2015.

Guanabara Bay, where the boat competitions would take place, was getting horrific PR due to pictures displaying the filthiest waters you’d never want to wade through.

The president of Brazil, Dilma Rouseff, was in the process of being deposed for corruption, as news of the biggest corruption investigation in Brazilian history was splashed across the news headlines on a daily basis.

And I wrote all that even before the Zika Virus became a thing.

A year later, not all that much has improved in Rio de Janeiro.

As this good AP summary of Rio a year later states, you could say there was some good to come out of the Rio Olympics.

The Olympics left behind a new subway line extension, high-speed bus service and an urban jewel: a renovated port area filled with food stands, musicians and safe street life in a city rife with crime. These probably would not have been built without the prestige of the Olympics. But the games also imposed deadlines and drove up the price. A state auditor’s report said the $3-billion subway was overbilled by 25 per cent.

Guanabara Bay a year later
July 27, 2017 Guanabara bay. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

But generally, the bad according to that article outweighed the good.

  • The Olympics left a half-dozen vacant sports arenas in the Olympic Park and 3,600 empty apartments in the boarded-up Olympic Village. Deodoro, a major complex of venues in the impoverished north, is shuttered behind iron gates.
  • A $20-million golf course is struggling to find players and financing. A few dozen were on the course on a recent, sunny Saturday. The clubhouse is mostly unfurnished, and it costs non-Brazilians 560 reals ($180) for 18 holes and a cart.
  • Since the Olympics, the bankrupt state of Rio de Janeiro has ceased major efforts to clean the bay, its unwelcome stench often drifting along the highway from the international airport. “I think it’s gotten worse,” Brazil’s gold-medal sailor Kahena Kunze said in a recent interview. “There was always floating trash, but I see more and more. It’s no use hiding the trash because it comes back. I figured it would get worse because I haven’t seen anything concrete being done.”
  • Some of the politicians behind the Olympics have been accused of graft, and organizers still owe creditors about $30 million to 40 million. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who wept when Rio was awarded the games, was convicted last month on corruption charges and faces a 9 1/2-year prison term. He is appealing. Former Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes , the local moving force behind the Olympics, is being investigated for allegedly accepting at least 15 million reals ($5 million) in payments to facilitate construction projects tied to the games. He denies wrongdoing.

The Rio Olympic organizers are still struggling under the weight of an approximate USD40 million debt. When the organizers appealed to the IOC for relief, the IOC replied no, saying “it had already contributed a record $1.53 billion to the Rio Olympics.

Fortunately, the Brazilian government was able to find more sympathetic ears in the British government. It was announced on August 1, 2017 that the British government would donate GBP80 million (over USD100 million) to Brazil, the ninth largest economy, to help “reduce poverty and fund economic development.”

Of course, it’s not all bad news.

At least Ryan Lochte, the American swimmer who lied about being robbed at gunpoint at a Rio gas station, was actually cleared last month of charges that he falsely communicated a crime to authorities.

Yay!

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Washington Post Video Zika Virus
Click on image to watch video on how an explanation of how the Zika Virus is transmitted.

 

We’re a little less than a month away and the intense fear of the zika-virus has diminished over the past few months. Part of the reason is that mosquitos, which transmit the zika-virus to humans, flourish in hot weather, and Brazil is in its cool season in August.

Still, athletes and National Olympic committees are taking measures where they can. I’ve noted three basic strategies: protection, abstention and just-in-case measures.

  • Protection: The US Olympic Committee will be issuing long-sleeved shirts and long pants to their athletes, as well as a six-months supply of condoms post Olympics as the virus can be transmitted through sexual fluids. The Australian Olympic Committee is providing their athletes with condoms specially treated with an anti-viral coating. The Korean Olympic Committee is not only providing long-sleeved shirts and long pants to their athletes, they are infusing the fabrics with mosquito repellent. To ensure everyone in Rio has mosquito repellent, Rio’s Olympic Organizing Committee just signed up SC Johnson as an official Olympic sponsor, which means that thousands of bottoles of the mosquito repellent OFF! Will be distributed to athletes, staff and volunteers.
  • Abstention: Despite calls by a prominent Canadian doctor to postpone the Rio Olympics, the World Health Organization did not endorse a ban, although they are strongly recommending pregnant women from travelling to zika-infested areas like Brazil, as well as to abstain from sex for at least 8 weeks after returning from zika-infested areas. If they do not experience such symptoms as rash, fever, arthralgia, myalgia or conjunctivitis after 8 weeks, they are likely uninfected. A handful of athletes have withdrawn for the Rio Olympics citing concerns regarding the zika virus, including the top four golfers in the world: #1 Jason Day of Australia, #2 Dustin Johnson of the US, #3 Jordan Spieth of the US, and #4 Rory McIlroy of Ireland, among others.
  • Just-in-Case Sperm Freezing: 2012 London Games long jump gold medalist Greg Rutherford initially expressed the strong possibility of not going to the Rio Games. But now that Rutherford has frozen his sperm, and has ensured the possibility of having children without the risk of zika-infection, he is now re-considering his participation. Spanish NBA star, Pau Gasol, is also considering freezing his sperm in order to have a greater of peace of mind if going to Rio.
Rio Temperatures
Average temperatures in Rio de Janeiro over 12 months

In the end, for the majority of the athletes, many athletes are going because the cool weather means a significant drop in risk. According to the New York Times, three-time gold medalist beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings already participated in a tournament in Rio in March and her precautions were effective. “I took my essential oils, I’m going to bring my Honest bug repellent, and I escaped all mosquito bites until the very last day. And I came home, and I didn’t get Zika.”

With the Rio Olympics in August in the middle of the Brazilian winter, she feels confident that the zika virus will not be a threat.

What a lot of athletes may also privately admit is that they are not going to let a tiny mosquito deny them a chance at glory after years of grueling training.

Torben Grael
Torben Grael (right), Brazil’s most decorated Olympian, is frustrated over the lost opportunity to clean up Guanabara Bay.

The Rio Olympics are under attack.

Not only is the world concerned about the removal of Brazil’s sitting President, the Petrobras scandal, the state of its weakened economy, and the threat of the deadly zika virus, prominent Brazilian athletes are also expressing increasingly powerful criticism and concern.

In this past week, Brazil’s most decorated Olympian, Torben Grael, as well as popular and former professional footballer, Rivaldo, spoke out very critically regarding the environment and security respectively.

In regards to the terribly polluted state of Guanabara Bay, Grael said in a recent interview that the organizers missed a huge chance to clean up the waters where sailing events will be held. Said the five-time medalist over five Olympiads:

We always hoped that having a big event like the Games would help. We ourselves put a lot of pressure to make it happen, but unfortunately it didn’t happen when they had money. And now they don’t have money, and so it’s even worse.

After the death of a 17-year old girl in Rio de Janeiro, Rivaldo wrote in frustration at the state of safety, health and politics in Rio, stating the following below a picture of the woman who was killed:

“Things are getting uglier here every day,” Rivaldo wrote. “I advise everyone with plans to visit Brazil for the Olympics in Rio — to stay home. You’ll be putting your life at risk here. This is without even speaking about the state of public hospitals and all the Brazilian political mess. Only God can change the situation in our Brazil.”

Rivaldo Instagram image
Rivaldo’s Instagram message from May 14.

On top of that, Dr Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa professor recently wrote in the Harvard Public Health Review that the Rio Olympics should be postponed for health safety reasons.

Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago.  Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.

Where is that light at the end of this tunnel?

South Korea uniform
New South Korean Team Uniform

The threat of zika-virus bearing mosquitos are such a fear that the South Korean Olympic team has taken unusual measures. Authorities have worked to ensure that the uniforms of South Korean athletes helped to decrease the chances of being bit by a mosquito.

Their uniforms will make sure that legs are covered to the ankles and the arms are covered to the wrists. As you can see in the video and pictures, no shorts or shorts sleeves. Additionally, official wear of the South Korean Olympic squad will be infused by mosquito repellent.

As you can see in this link, other nations are fashioning wear that expose arms and legs. Since bartering among athletes is a huge sub-economy during the Olympics, as athletes trade a national pin, shirt, hat or jacket for those of another nation’s, it wouldn’t surprise me if the South Korean jackets become a hot item if the zika scare climbs another notch.

Australia team uniform
Australia Team Uniform for Rio
Adam Scott
Adam Scott of Australia

Golf is returning to the Olympic stage in 2016, the first time since the third Olympics in 1904.

And yet, some big names in the game are declining their invitations: 3-time majors winner Vijay Singh of Fiji, World # 7 Adam Scott of Australia, and World #12 Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa.

And it’s possible they won’t be the only ones. While Singh cited fear over contracting the zika virus in Brazil, Scott explained that adding the Olympics to the already congested PGA Tour will make for an exhausting schedule. According to this article, “the PGA Tour has had to cram the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, British Open and PGA Championship into a five-week window because of the Olympics. And, two weeks after the Olympics end, the FedEx Cup playoffs begin. Two weeks after those are done, the Ryder Cup will be contested.”

In other words, ensuring they are in top condition for the tournaments that count are key to many of the top pro golfers.

Professional ice hockey players, perhaps many of them, may be having an opposite reaction. Ice hockey has been an Olympic sport since 1920, and countries like the United States, the Soviet Union and former members of that nation, and Canada have had epic battles in the Olympic Games over the decades.

Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

Professional ice hockey players, particularly those from the National Hockey League, were allowed to represent their national teams at the Olympics, starting from the Nagano Winter Games in 1998. But because the NHL and the owners of the team were worried about disruption to the NHL schedule as well as injuries, it was decided that the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) would foot the bill for transportation and insurance costs. For the Sochi Games in 2014, that was a combined USD$32 million!

The IOC, which provided USD$14 million of that bill for Sochi, just announced that they would not pay those costs to ensure the participation of NHL players at the PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018. Said Rene Fasel, president of the IIHF in this sportsnet article, “Our wish is to have the best players. [But the IOC] not covering the cost as they did at the last five Olympic Games puts us in a difficult financial situation.”

Immediately after this announcement, one of the NHL’s biggest stars, Alex Ovechkin, announced that he would join his Russian National Team for the PyeongChang Olympics regardless of the NHL’s decision. It’s likely that many of his colleagues in the NHL will have similar feelings.

Why the difference in reaction towards the Olympics? I’d have to speculate. But here are a couple of possible reasons:

  1. History: ice hockey and the Olympics have a long and emotional history. The Olympics are considered the pinnacle of achievement for many ice hockey players, even beyond the NHL Stanley Cup championship. Golf has practically no history in the Olympics.
  2. Rigors/Value of the Schedule: The Olympics happen at the time in the NHL schedule where teams are jockeying for playoff spots. But since the NHL controls the schedule, they can suspend the schedule for all teams, which makes it an even playing field for all teams. In the professional golf tour, as has been true with the professional tennis tour, those individuals who participate in the Olympics may lose out on opportunities to play in tournaments that will be more lucrative and perhaps perceived to be more important. When tennis returned to the Olympics in 1984, many of the best players did not compete.

2004 Athens Olympics

Reports are that only 50% of tickets to the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, starting on August 5, have been sold. For the Paralympics in September, only 12% have been sold.

The Brazilian economy is shrinking during its worst recession in 25 years. The President of Brazil is under threat of impeachment for a decision to include an ex-President in her cabinet, someone under investigation for receiving bribes in the Petrobras corruption scandal. The Zika virus continues to spread in Brazil, a disease where there is now “strong scientific consensus” that it is a cause of microcephaly in newborns.

Those perhaps are the biggest factors that will result in many empty seats of a possible 7.5 million that are available for the Rio Olympics.

What’s interesting is that empty seats at Olympic Games is a recurring headache and embarrassment for Olympic organizing committees.

At the 2004 Games in Athens, “only about two-thirds of the 5.3 million tickets were sold“. At the 2008 Games in Beijing, organizers claimed that all 6.8 million tickets were sold, and yet empty seats blotted arenas throughout the Games. And at the 2012 Games in London, where pledge after pledge was made by organizers to fill the seats, and that “more than 20 million applications were made for the 6.6 million available seats”, the London organizing committee could not prevent the empty-seat phenomenon.

Empty Seats at Gymnastics Competition at London Games
2012 London Games

Athens and Rio share a common issue in that their economies may not be vibrant enough to drive local ticket sales. But Beijing and London do. Other factors are at play, resulting in tickets going unused. This article from The Guardian regarding empty seats at the London Games indicates that a few groups who are granted reserved seating, often the best seats in the house, just don’t show up:

  • Accredited members of the Olympic family, which include international sports federations, IOC officials and corporate sponsors,
  • Guests of corporate sponsors who receive tickets more for their affiliation with the sponsor and less regarding their interest in the Games
  • Members of the press, who may be less interested in heats and preliminary rounds
  • Athletes, particularly in the first week of the Games as all athletes are preparing or competing

Beijing pointed to another group – agencies that buy and re-sell tickets to people overseas or to people locally anticipating a spike in demand during the Games. Westerners in

Petrobras 3

Brazil is facing the worst economy in 25 years. The Zika virus is feeding fears, particularly for expectant mothers. And while the Rio Olympics are presenting an opportunity to shine the international spotlight on Brazil, the underclass are generally feeling that the only people who will benefit from the Games will be the fortunate rich and powerful.

And then, there is Petrobras, a government entity embroiled in a bid rigging scandal between officials in the state-owned energy company and construction companies that wish to win Petrobras projects. A secret cartel of construction companies work with Petrobras officials to select the construction company, purposely agree to exorbitant payments, after which the construction companies kick back payments back to the collaborating Petrobras officials, who use that money to fund friendly politicians, which is helpful for a state-owned organization. It is estimated that the scandal has resulted in over USD5 billion changing hands in various illegal transactions. That’s astounding.

Petrobras bidness 2

I have not done this explanation justice, which is why I want to point you to this very clear and effective explanation of the Petrobras Scandal, and the historical and political context, by Zach Beauchamp.

In Brazil right now, if anything can go wrong, it seems it will go wrong – just on the verge of commencing Brazil’s greatest party of them all, the Olympic Summer Games in Rio.

But one thing we can say about the Petrobras Scandal, something that Beauchamp points out at the end of his article. This scandal, which has been tabloid fodder for months in

Kristie Moore five months pregnant
Kristie Moore of Canada who competed at the Vancouver Olympics while 5-month pregnant.
Health officials in several countries stricken by the Zika virus have given their female citizens an unprecedented warning: “Don’t get pregnant.”

That’s the first line of this New York Times report, the advice that basically assumes a possible connection between the Zika virus in pregnant women and deformities to their children.

I can only imagine what women planning on visiting areas like South America, or female athletes planning to compete in Rio this August are thinking. Should I stay or should I go? If you are pregnant, and planning on going to the Rio Olympics with your family, you may want to reconsider your decision. Of course, no athlete would go to the Olympics if they were pregnant.

But apparently, that is a naïve assumption, for there have been quite a few known cases where women athletes were 1 to 3 months pregnant, and were not aware until after the Games. But three in this list of pregnant Olympians were at least five months pregnant when they competed:

  • Kristie Moore of Canada, who won a silver medal in curling at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics,
  • Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands, who won a gold medal in individual dressage at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
  • Cornelia Pfohl of Germany who had been in early pregnancy when she won bronze in team archery at the 2000 Sydney Games, but was an amazing 7 months pregnant when she competed at the 2004 Athens Games.

Anky van Grunsven Athens
Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands competed while 5 months pregnant at the 2004 Olympics.
Van Grunsven in particular has had a stellar Olympic career, winning a total of 8 equestrian medals, including three golds in individual dressage, over six Olympics, from 1992 to 2012. In November, 2004, only three months removed from the end of the Athens Games, she gave birth to her first son, Yannick.

Clearly, the Zika Virus should be giving women, who are pregnant, pause. But the Olympics come only once every four years. Who knows what stories Rio will bring.

mosquito

It is not a pretty sight – a newly born child with an unusually small head and brain damage. The working theory is that these abnormalities are caused by a virus, known as the Zika Virus, delivered by a certain strain of mosquito. It is believed that millions of people in the Americas, particularly South America, are infected, but that for the most part, “the infection causes no symptoms and leads to no lasting harm.” (See the New York Times article “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus.)

And as the New York Times emphasized in another article, the connection between Zika and abnormalities in newborns is still unproven: “…the big question is whether Zika is responsible for the huge increase in birth defects reported by doctors, hospitals and other medical officials in Brazil over the last few months. That connection has still not been proved.”

And yet, it is the fear Zika creates that is of most concern to people in the Americas, particularly in Brazil, where the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held in August and September this year. Millions of people from all over the world will visit, and while transmission of the Zika virus is unclear, the fear of the spread of the disease has increased. Will people who get bit in Rio de Janeiro become infected, and can they spread the virus in their own country via mosquitos locally? Will pregnant women be at significant risk?

In fact, The Center for Disease Control in the United States has issued a warning against travel for pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant to over 20 countries, primarily in the Caribbean, Central and South America, including Brazil. And the World Health Organization has declared Zika an “international health emergency.”

In the run-up to the London Olympics in 2012, there were fears of a flu pandemic. The Chinese government publicized the fact that thousands of additional hospital beds would be kept open in case of an outbreak of SARS. Fortunately, those particular fears never became an issue, and ultimately, those epidemics never emerged. Will Zika be different? One concern is the unknown nature of the Zika virus. The American Psychological Association explained the impact of the fear of the unknown disease in this article.

Research has shown that different threats push different psychological buttons. Novel, exotic threats like Ebola or avian flu raise anxiety levels higher than more familiar threats do. This reaction may have to do with our amygdala, which research suggests plays a role in detecting novelty as well as processing fear. In one recent study, for example, Nicholas Balderston and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee found that activity in the amygdala increased when participants looked at unfamiliar flowers right after seeing pictures of snakes (PLOS ONE, 2013).

And, at the same time, people often under-react to familiar threats. For example, influenza sickens as much as 20 percent of the population a year, and kills thousands. Yet because most people have had the flu and survived, or know someone who has, people may feel less urgency toward getting a seasonal flu vaccine. This may help explain why the U.S. vaccination rate for the 2013–14 flu season was only 46.2 percent.

I feel for the organizers of the Rio Olympics. As I had described in a previous post, one