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The Rio 2016 Games Are Unhealthy and Un-Olympian

The Olympics were supposed to elevate the health of Rio de Janeiro. Instead, the risk of Zika makes proceeding with the games “negligent in the extreme.”

A health agent carries a bucket of guppy fish to place them in standing water to consume larva of Zika-transmitting mosquitoes in an empty lot of Rio de Janeiro's Tijuca neighborhood in February. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

In an almost comically ominous sign, officials were forced to resort to bolt cutters to open the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday. No one could find the key to the gate. Rio fire fighters had the honor of throwing open the stadium’s doors.

Officials in Rio should have left the lock in place. Even now, with only hours to go until the Opening Ceremony, officials should do the right thing and postpone the Rio 2016 Summer Games. The dangers to the safety of athletes, participants, staff, and tourists—plus the benefits promised but ultimately denied to locals, to the detriment of their health—are far too great. The Rio 2016 Games are un-Olympian.

“Nothing about these Olympics is in keeping with the values of the Olympics,” says Amir Attaran, faculty in the school of medicine and school of law at the University of Ottawa. “It’s not just Zika. The Olympics make FIFA and the World Cup look like they’re organized by the Boy Scouts.”

Attaran is the author of a May article in the Harvard Public Health Review that argues that the games should not—cannot—proceed. Much like how political, infrastructure, and labor crises in Rio have threatened to turn the event into the Calamity Games, Attaran argues that a toxic brew of pressing public health concerns could have serious consequences extending far beyond Rio.

The first and greatest of these worries is Zika. Attaran writes that Zika is more dangerous than previously thought, with the strain that arrived in Brazil from French Polynesia in 2013 being strongly linked to neurological disorders that strike adults, including Guillain-Barré syndrome and acute diesseminated encephalomyelitis. Scientists with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now believe that Zika is causally linked to pediatric microcephaly, the horror that most people associate with the infection.

The Zika outbreak in Brazil is also more widespread than authorities have acknowledged, in particular in Rio. The state has the highest number of Zika cases in the country (26,000) and the fourth-worst rate of incidence (157 per 100,000). The International Olympic Committee pledged in January that Rio would be a “safe environment,” one month before an official tally of Zika cases was underway. “It’s been known since roughly the beginning of the year that Rio is a hotspot of Zika,” Attaran tells CityLab.

Olympic authorities have been banking on the notion that the Aedes aegypti mosquito population will plummet during Rio’s winter (July–September). But as Attaran notes in his article, Rio de Janeiro city is in the grips of a “surprising and unexplained disease surge.” There were six times as many cases of dengue fever in the first quarter of 2016 than one year ago (8,133 cases to 1,285 cases). This means that the incidence of Aedes-borne disease has skyrocketed despite a massive military effort to wipe out mosquito populations in Rio.

“Some Brazilian epidemiologists who have cooked their numbers say that [an outbreak] is impossible,” Attaran says. “It’s absolute bullshit.” (When I asked him for more information about the Brazilian study, he declined. “The study is so poor that I’m not even going to try to describe it.”)

No one can put any quantitative odds on the likelihood of a global Zika outbreak. But with Brazil in the throes of an epidemic, it is certainly possible that the infection could spread beyond the borders of the Americas to new frontiers.  

Think of a global Zika epidemic as a kind of relay race. The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the Zika infection can be found on every continent on the planet. Still, Aedes mosquitoes do not presently carry the virus outside the Americas and the Pacific. Under precise circumstances, infected visitors to Rio could return to their home countries, where they could potentially transmit Zika to others—by handing off the Zika baton to local Aedes mosquito populations.

“It cannot possibly help when an estimated 500,000 foreign tourists flock into Rio for the Games, potentially becoming infected, and returning to their homes where both local Aedes mosquitoes and sexual transmission can establish new outbreaks,” Attaran writes. “All it takes is one infected traveler.”

Last month, the CDC modeled a worst-case scenario for country-specific risk of international Zika transmission based on five factors. The news is grim: According to the model, “19 countries currently not reporting Zika outbreaks that are participating in the Games met all the risk criteria for susceptibility to ongoing Zika transmission from introduction by a single traveler to the Olympics.” Of these, four nations are vulnerable to Zika transmission specifically due to exposure during the games: Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Yemen.

Even a single foreign infection linked to Brazil will tarnish the legacy of the Rio 2016 Games. There is really only one thing that the IOC could do to help ensure that Zika doesn’t leave Brazil’s borders: postpone. By postponing for a period of a year to 18 months, the IOC could wait the eventual tipping point whereby local populations eventually reach herd immunity.

“There will come a point that so many people in Brazil have contracted the disease that transmission will grind to a halt,” Attaran says. We don’t know if it’s been reached yet. I wish we did. We very much wish that it has. When we don’t have scientific evidence of herd immunity, proceeding with the Olympics is negligent in the extreme.”

Beyond the threat of Zika, other aspects of the Rio 2016 Games represent a threat to public health. U.S. Olympian Megan Kalmoe may say “I will row through shit for you, America,” but other athletes will arguably have a tougher time competing in Rio’s fetid waters. Consider the marathon swimmers, who will “literally be swimming in human crap.”

For Rio natives, the promise of the Olympic Games was a reversal of fortunes for Guanabara Bay. Those rivers are not clean now; rehabilitation won’t even be in the public discussion after the games leave town. In a very real sense, the Olympics were supposed to elevate the health of Rio de Janeiro. Which would be in keeping with an event that is supposed to celebrate the very best of the human body and human spirit.

Eighteen months might have given Brazil some time to get its house in order. While the political fallout from the country’s corruption crisis is going to take many years to sort out, Brazil earns nothing by proceeding with a calamity. The IOC earns nothing by proceeding with a calamity. The risk is not that the Rio 2016 Games will not shower Brazil in glory (they will not), but that they will bring more harm than good to global health.

“There’s nothing the IOC is capable of doing except postponing,” Attaran says. “Postponing would be the right thing to do.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.