Not going to Rio?
Some athletes consider skipping the Olympics as the Zika virus adds to problems
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More than 200,000 Brazilian troops are waging “war” on mosquitos, authorized by President Dilma Rousseff to raise awareness, inspect homes, and eradicate breeding grounds. With the beleaguered Olympics in Rio de Janeiro less than six months away, the Zika virus has become not only a health emergency, but a public relations one.
“If I had to make the choice today, I wouldn’t go [to the Olympics],” U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said, concerned with the uncertain risks to pregnant women. The 34-year-old is not pregnant, but she told SI.com, “I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child.”
Solo, of course, refers to fears the virus has caused skyrocketing rates of microcephaly, a birth defect marked by an abnormally small head (see “Zika hazard,” in this issue). While Brazil had 147 cases in 2014, officials are now struggling to investigate 4,000 reports since October. The concerns of one of the world’s most famous female Olympians show why countries are scrambling to prepare and reassure their athletes.
“We have to explain to those coming to Brazil, the athletes, that there is zero risk if you are not a pregnant woman,” President Rousseff’s chief of staff Jaques Wagner says. Since only 20 percent of victims actually exhibit any of the virus’ mild symptoms, most of the 4 million people the World Health Organization expects to become infected won’t even know they have it.
But Wagner isn’t entirely correct. Diverse medical experts and cautious countries like El Salvador are telling infected women to wait anywhere from three months to two years to conceive a child. Zika can also be sexually transmitted, particularly by men. That mix of facts and uncertainty places long-term concerns on athletes’ marriages.
“My wife’s not going to Rio,” U.K. rower Andrew Hodge, 36, told The Times. “For anybody who wants a family, Zika is a very real and frightening threat.”
Most agree it’s too early to make a final decision on the August games. Many athletes haven’t even qualified yet, so Rio isn’t their top concern. Some athletes, confident enough in their precautions, have traveled to Rio for test events. They’re wearing long sleeves, applying bug repellent, and sacrificing sunbathing on Copacabana Beach—more business, less fun.
The U.S. Olympic Committee has hired disease specialists to help plan for the games. Australian officials are providing bug repellent and advising the use of mosquito nets. But Kenyan officials haven’t ruled out withdrawing their whole team from the Olympics. The United States is also pledging to support athletes and staff who stay home—even encouraging them to stay if uneasy.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) further cemented its mark on the NFL Feb. 6 with the election of Ken “The Snake” Stabler to the Hall of Fame. The late Oakland quarterback died in July at age 69, donating his brain to Boston University’s CTE research. Researchers found the 1974 Most Valuable Player suffered from Stage 3 of the debilitating brain disease, believed to be caused by hits to the head. He played football for 28 years, beginning at age 9, and suffered from headaches and memory loss in his later years. The late Junior Seau, believed to have committed suicide while suffering CTE-linked depression, entered the Hall last year. —A.B.
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