Postpone the Olympics?

Recently a Canadian professor, Dr. Amir Attaran, called for the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro to be delayed or moved because of the risk that the wave of visitors will accelerate the spread of the Zika epidemic. The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Tom Frieden, has now weighed in to argue that the risk to the athletes is small, and many people are already traveling to areas affected by Zika. The Games should therefore move forward as scheduled. Still, it is remarkable that this close to the Games, people are suggesting that they moved, not only because of Zika, but also because of other concerns such as contamination of the waters in the bay of Guanabara. One recent study found that virus levels in the bay were 1.7 million times the permissible limit in California. I confess that when I read this figure my first thought was not for the athletes, but rather how many times I had swum in these waters myself. Sailors are also complaining about the sheer quantity of garbage in the bay, and are concerned that impacts with the trash may affect races.

In the end the games will move forward, and likely will be a success. In the future, however, the experience with the Brazilian games will likely change discussions about the venues for other Olympics. Perhaps more importantly, within Brazil, it will emphasize the point that many Brazilian critics of the games have long made: that the interests of Brazilian citizens have to come first in government decisions, and that basic needs -education, health and sanitation- should be prioritized over mega-projects.

Addendum: Immediately after posting this piece, I read that 150 health experts had written an open letter calling for the Games to be postponed because of Zika. You can read more about their arguments at USA today. What is most interesting in the piece is the argument that the World Health Organization (WHO) has a conflict of interest regarding the Games, given its partnership with the International Olympics Committee.

Shawn Smallman, 2016


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