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US Olympic athletes raise alarm amid rapid spread of Zika in Brazil

Brazilian soldiers set up banners that said in Portuguese “A mosquito is not stronger than a whole country” in Rio de Janeiro earlier this month. AP

When they prepare for the Olympics, elite athletes put their lives on hold. Some take a leave of absence from college or career. Some put off weddings. Some wait to start families. So it’s no coincidence when some Olympians welcome babies a year or two after the Games.

That’s a big reason why the Zika virus and its possible connection to birth defects has caused heightened concern among American athletes — especially those heading for the Summer Olympics in August in Rio de Janeiro. They understand that major international competitions come with risks: terrorism, environmental hazards, illnesses uncommon in the United States. But Zika is creating concern on a more personal level.


“People finish the Olympics and restart other parts of their life,” said Glenn Merry, chief executive of USRowing. “Is there a long-term impact to childbearing? If not, what’s the medium- and short-term impact? We want to better educate our athletes so that they can make the decisions they need to make to protect themselves.”

Some high-profile athletes have already voiced concern about competing in the Summer Games. US soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo told Sports Illustrated this month that she wouldn’t go to the Rio Olympics “if I had to make the choice today.” She added, “Female athletes should not be forced to make a decision that could sacrifice the health of a child.”

Like the US Olympic Committee and other national sports governing bodies, USRowing is sorting out Zika fact from fiction. It’s a familiar process. Pre-Games panic strikes every quadrennium, with reports of looming disaster. Before the 2012 London Olympics, the alarm was raised about security. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was air pollution.

But the International Olympic Committee lives by one motto: The show must go on. There is too much at stake, especially financially.


In recent weeks, IOC president Thomas Bach has told reporters he is “very confident” that there will be “good conditions for all athletes and all spectators” when the Summer Olympics take place.

He believes time is on the side of Brazilian organizers, who have begun to inspect venues for mosquito breeding areas and fumigated when necessary. Also, the Games will take place during Brazil’s winter, when the weather turns cooler and drier and the mosquito population decreases.

Still, Bach’s words and Brazil’s efforts would inspire more confidence if the waters slated for competition weren’t polluted with raw sewage. Organizers promised to clean up the water around Rio, but haven’t done so. With the Games drawing closer, Brazilian and Olympic officials have downplayed the risk the dirty water poses to athletes. Now, it’s only logical to wonder whether the Zika issue will follow the same pattern.

For better or worse, some Olympic veterans see this as a predictable part of the pre-Games spotlight on host cities.

“I’ve been through enough Olympics — three of them — and there’s always been some concern,” said Marblehead’s Shalane Flanagan, a member of the US marathon team. “Every site has had their issues, and every time the media tends to build it up as horrendous. But every time I’ve arrived at an Olympic site, it’s exceeded my expectations. So I’m actually not worried.”

With less than six months until the Rio Games, here’s what we know about Zika: The virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the same insect that transmits dengue fever and yellow fever, which can be fatal. (Cases of sexual transmission have also been reported with Zika.) Only 20 percent of people infected with Zika show symptoms. Those symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, and eye redness, and they last from a few days to a week.


It is presumed, but not conclusively proven, that Zika causes microcephaly — abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains — in newborns. And researchers are trying to determine whether there is a link between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can cause paralysis.

On Feb. 10, USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun sent a memo to prospective members of the US Olympic and Paralympic delegations that relayed many of the same facts about Zika. And he mentioned that the USOC had been in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and consulted infectious disease specialists with Zika expertise.

“I know that the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil is of concern to many of you,” wrote Blackmun. “I want to emphasize that it is to us as well and that your well-being in Rio this summer is our highest priority.”

Even without proof of Zika connections to microcephaly and Guillain-Barre, the rapid spread of the virus has captured the world’s attention.

Recently, the World Health Organization declared Zika an international health emergency. Medical experts and government officials have warned pregnant women against traveling to Brazil, where approximately 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been diagnosed. And women who might become pregnant have been advised to use extreme caution when visiting Zika-affected areas.


When it comes to participating in the Summer Games, each athlete’s decision will be based on individual circumstances, including where and when they compete. Outdoor venues naturally pose a higher risk.

“It’s very much a personal decision,” said rower Meghan Musnicki, who won gold in 2012 with the women’s eight. “It’s not like someone can tell you it’s right or wrong if you decide to go or not go based on the fact that you intend to get pregnant immediately afterwards.

“It’s never entered my mind not to go. It would be the pinnacle of my rowing career to represent the US again at the Olympic Games.

“I’m not intending on being pregnant before the Games or immediately following the Games. For me, personally, it’s not something I’m obsessing over right now,” Musnicki said.

She said she trusts that USOC and other Olympic officials will put athletes’ well-being first, and that it’s “not something where they’ll cross their fingers and hope it goes well.”

She cites the recent Blackmun memo as one reason for her confidence, as well as the USOC’s hiring of two infectious disease experts and making a female doctor available for questions.

When asked whether Rio’s polluted waters were a bigger concern than Zika, Musnicki didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s not a panic concern, but more of an awareness.

“As a rower and a water sport, contracting some terrible GI bug while I’m at the Olympic Games would not be good.


“But that’s out of my control as an athlete. I have to trust that the governing bodies are setting forth as many precautions and safety measures as possible.

“They’re going to do their job, and I’m going to do my job. That’s how it works.”

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.