Bumpy road to Rio Olympics

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It is the most prestigious event in the sporting calendar, where athletes from around the world can showcase their talents and grab gold medals for their respective countries.

The 2016 Rio Olympics is just weeks away but there are already issues that threaten to snatch the spotlight away from the talented athletes in the global spectacular.

The Zika virus, which has swept through Brazil, has given both health organizations and the Rio Olympic committee a headache. In addition to the Zika virus, athletes are thinking twice about participating in the event. Furthermore doping is another issue at this year’s event. New revelations have come to light of athletes using substances that were banned in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Zika virus threat in Rio

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) the Zika virus is spread to humans via the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. This is the same mosquito that transmits both dengue and yellow fever. In 1947 the Zika virus was first identified in Uganda. Since then cases of the Zika outbreak have been found in over 60 countries around the world.

While the Zika virus is transmitted by Aedes mosquito, it can also be transferred through sexual intercourse with an infected person, during pregnancy from a pregnant woman to her baby, and through a blood transfusion (which is likely but not confirmed). Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain and a headache. These symptoms are usually mild and last for 2-7 days. Normally a person with the virus does not get sick enough that they go to hospital. The virus does not often result in death but it has been known to cause microcephaly. Microcephaly is a birth defect where the baby’s head is smaller than expected and brain development is incomplete. There is neither a vaccine nor any medication specific to treat the disease. People with the virus are informed to get plenty of rest, drink fluids and take medication recommended by a doctor.

The first case of the Zika virus in Brazil was detected in October 2015. The quick spread of the disease was thought to be caused by the influx of tourists during the carnival in Rio. However Brazil’s health minister, Richard Barros, has urged many that there are preventative measures which have been taken to ensure the safety of athletes during the Olympics. He said that they have already drafted 2500 health workers to assist in high infection areas and have pledged millions to the cause. Barros also noted that the infection rate has lowered from 7700 in January 2016 to 700 in May. Further he ensured that health agents conduct non-stop inspections to eliminate breeding sites. WHO have also decided to reassess the danger of hosting the event in August.

Athletes withdrawing from the games

While it seems that the Rio Olympics committee is doing their best to ensure the games go ahead, several athletes are uncertain of their participation in this year’s games. Some athletes have officially withdrawn from the Olympics. Most of the athletes who have pulled out are golfers including World no 1 Jason Day, Rory McIlory, Vijay Singh, Danny Willet as well as two South African golfers Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen. This puts a damper on the golfing aspect of the games as golf has been hauled from its 112 year exile. Golf has not featured in the games since 1904.

Golfers are not the only athletes uncertain of their participation; others from several sporting codes are rethinking whether they will represent their countries at the Olympics. These include Hope Solo from the USA Women’s soccer team, US cyclist Tejay van Garderen, Romanian tennis player Simona Halep, US basketball player Stephen Curry, Great Britain’s long jumper Greg Rutherford and UK heptathlon runner Jessica Ennis-Hill to name a few. While Kenya’s Olympic committee head, Kipchoge Keino, hinted that the Kenyans will not be participating in this year’s games due to fear of contracting the Zika virus.

Doping: Will the 2016 Olympics be spared?

Doping scandals have always been a dark cloud hanging over the Olympics, especially track and field athletes. This year in May, 31 athletes from 12 sporting codes were found to have used banned substances during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Fourteen of those athletes came from Russia with the majority having participated in track and field events. Last month, on June 17 the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) decided to uphold the ban preventing Russian athletes from participating in Rio. The IAAF’s decision came after a taskforce was set up and found that Russia had failed to clean up their act since last year’s revelation about Russia running a state sponsored doping operation.

Rio’s bid to keep this year’s events ‘clean’ has already taken a blow when their most efficient doping control lab was closed down six weeks before of the Olympics. The decision to close down the sophisticated $68 million lab was made by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). WADA claimed that the lab did not conform to the International Standard for Laboratories. The lab was expected to process 6000 samples during the course of the games. Don Caitlin, who ran doping control labs at the Atlanta Olympics, said the closure of the lab would be a disaster. She went on to say that if the lab remained closed samples would then have to be flown to other labs likely in America or Europe on a daily basis. This will compound Rio’s problems and likely put a dent in their ability to host ‘clean and fair’ Olympics.

With 5 weeks until the games begin on August 5, one may hope that all the headaches faced by the Rio committee will be fixed and the games may go ahead as planned. Some may be optimistic about the outcome, but with such struggles and hiccups faced in the build-up to the biggest sporting event of all time, one wonders whether Rio will absorb the pressure and host the Olympics against all odds.

Written by: Sanele Manikivana