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Keith Strudler: The Olympic Virus


If you grew up in certain humid southern parts of this country like I did, mosquitos are simply a part of daily life and culture, especially in the summer. In camp, we would measure our overnight trips by the number of bites we got. And most everyone sports a steady odor of mosquito repellant, kind of the cologne of the American south. It was annoying, and sometimes made your arms and legs look like a topographical map, but more discomfort than outright injury.

Of course, while I might not have realized it as a grade schooler, mosquito bites can cause more than bumps and itches, particularly in the developing world. Everything from Malaria to West Nile to Yellow Fever. And, as we now know, the Zika virus. That’s the growing and primary concern of the International Olympic Committee and the organizing committee of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio. They’ve been contending in recent months with the increasing spread of the Zika virus, primarily through mosquito bites, across the country. And they’ve contended even more from the resulting bad PR, which only escalates when the American CDC posts travel precautions. Essentially, according to the CDC, if you’re pregnant or planning to be – or perhaps has a partner that might – you’ve been advised to take heed.

Several people have, including American soccer goalie Hope Solo, who announced publicly earlier this month that if she were to make the decision now, she wouldn’t go to Rio. That follows the United States Olympic Committee telling American sports federations that coaches and athletes concerned over the Zika virus probably shouldn’t attend. That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement. Now, World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan this week said that Brazil is doing a good job attacking the virus and ensuring a safe Olympics. According to Chan, and this is her quote, “the mosquito is tricky, but it cannot defeat Brazil.” Be that true as it may, Olympians and fans are probably more concerned with the casualties of war than outright defeat, even if it is against a lowly flying insect.

Athletes have encountered health risks at international sporting events before, including air quality at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And this isn’t even Rio’s only health problem, as their waterways are the essential equivalent of giant toilet bowl, a welcomed concept for Olympic sailors and open water swimmers. We once believed the only problems with the 2016 Olympics would be petty crime, unfinished facilities, and a country left in bankruptcy. Now it seems we’ve added virus and disease to the mix. That truly is the Olympic ideal.

In cases like these, we can be assured of two things. One, a whole lot of cover-up. The Olympics we see might be a whole lot different than its reality. And I fully expect Olympic officials, at least those that want to stay employed, to both undersell any risk and laud Brazil in the aftermath. The Olympics knows the greatest assurance of success is simply to proclaim it so. In other words, the IOC will declare victory and go home, like any good army.

Second, at some point, fingers will start pointing and blame will be assessed. Which begs the question, who really is at fault here – beyond the mosquitos, of course? Is it the Brazilian government, who bid for two mega-events they couldn’t manage while actually trying to keep its nation clean and safe and, dare I say, fed, educated, and housed? Is it the IOC, which seems intent on sending the Olympics to nations that are ill prepared and fail to pull the plug when things go awry – physically, economically, sociologically, politically, or otherwise? Is it all the competitor nations, most all of whom send athletes and staff despite the clear failures of the Olympic movement? Who is to blame for the ideology that the Games must go on, even when maybe they shouldn’t?

The answer, of course, is yes. Meaning everyone contributes to this systemic failure, where athletes and fans literally have to consider whether fulfilling their athletic dream might also mean the risk having a child born with birth defects – which is what the Zika virus can lead to. No one wants to stop an athletic machine that is, by all estimates, too big to fail – even when it has.

This, of course, is another reason why far too many modern nations, including the US, seem far less interested in hosting future Olympics. Just ask Boston, which threw its US bid back like it was a bag of tea. And why the IOC needs to find a way to change that mindset, at least if it wants future games free of insect borne disease and oceans of raw sewage. Maybe then, mosquitos won’t always be a part of Olympic life.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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