United States soccer star Hope Solo may boycott the Olympics in Rio. The Zika virus has become the latest crisis for both the International Olympic Committee and organizers in Brazil, leading some countries—Solo’s statement follows the Australian Olympic committee contemplating the same decision—to reconsider going to Brazil.
Zika is a virus that has led to serious complications for women who are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant, leading to terrible birth defects in babies, many born with heads far too small for their bodies.
“I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child,” Solo told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl this week. “I don’t know when that day will come for Jerramy and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby.
“No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma. Female professional athletes already face many different considerations and have to make choices that male professional athletes don’t.”
Wahl pointed out that while Rio de Janeiro is a major city with far greater medical resources than other parts of Brazil, the soccer matches are taking place in cities like Manaus, Salvador, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo, as Wahl writes, “some of which have higher rates than Rio of mosquito-borne viruses like Zika, dengue, chikungunya and malaria.”
What’s known of Zika is that having children after contracting the virus is usually safe after a few months, but things have spread so quickly that thousands of people flying in for the Olympics then leaving for their respective countries could help spread the virus and other serious mosquito-carried maladies all around the world. We’re talking about a legitimate risk of a pandemic.
Surely, no matter how many athletes agree with Solo—both privately and publicly—the United States won’t boycott the Olympics. If the USOC didn’t boycott Sochi with the safety issues there, it’s highly unlikely they will boycott Rio for a few million mosquitos, especially when the U.S. usually wins a lot more medals at the Summer Games.
Still some athletes may boycott, and most countries, including the United States, should.
Rio is proving to be something of a disaster as a host city, and if the health concerns are so real this close to the event—the opening ceremonies are 177 days away—surely the right decision for athletes is to boycott, which leads to a much bigger question:
Why do we even have the Olympics anymore?
For one fortnight—give or take—every two years, people from all over the world descend on a city to run and jump and swim and leap and dance and shoot and ski and skate and slide and do all the amazing things that have given thousands of athletes the opportunity to represent their nations at the Olympic Games.
On a base level, there is no better sporting event than the Olympics—not the Super Bowl or the World Series or even the World Cup has the true global reach of the Olympic Games, where the richest basketball player on the planet can walk side-by-side with a former Marine Corps marksman and a 16-year old home-schooled gymnast who is primed to become America’s next sweetheart, to compete against the same mixed group of competitors from China and France and Brazil and Cote d’Ivoire and Australia and everywhere in between.
As a concept, the Olympics are wonderful—a celebration of our competitive spirit as a species—but in reality, the Olympics in the modern age have become anything but for many of the cities fortunate(?) enough to host them. Funded by corporate greed and governmental mismanagement, the Olympics leave have left a wake of civic unrest, financial ruin and disrepair almost everywhere they go.
When the 2016 Olympic Games begin in Rio de Janeiro this summer, viewers will see the spectacle of a proud city in a wonderfully colorful and vibrant country. What we won’t see—or at least what the organizers and, presumably, television partners spending billions of dollars to show us the Games don’t want us to see—is all the filth. Literally and figuratively.
The water in Rio is unfit for humans, and yet many of the open water events are slated to take place in Rio’s most polluted areas. From the AP in December:
A new round of testing by The Associated Press shows the city’s Olympic waterways are as rife with pathogens far offshore as they are nearer land, where raw sewage flows into them from fetid rivers and storm drains. That means there is no dilution factor in the bay or lagoon where events will take place and no less risk to the health of athletes like sailors competing farther from the shore.
Let’s not overlook that construction costs flutter into the billions, leaving the host city footing the bill for state-of-the-art facilities they will use for two weeks and almost never use again. This is not new.
Greece almost died, as a nation, because of financial ruin many link directly to hosting the 2004 Olympics. The pictures of the ruins of Olympic facilities are haunting. This, from the Guardian in 2014, 10 years after the Athens Games.
On 13 August 2004, the Olympic Games came home to Greece for the XXVIII Olympiad at an estimated cost of approximately €9bn. A decade after the sporting extravaganza, many of its once-gleaming Olympic venues now lie abandoned. For many Greeks who swelled with pride at the time, the Games are now a source of anger as the country struggles through a six-year depression, record unemployment, homelessness and poverty, with many questioning how the nation has benefited from the multi-billion-dollar event.
The last Olympic Games, two winters ago, were held in Sochi, Russia; a curious location at the time given its scale as a city and proximity to multiple war zones—the United States literally stationed war ships off the coast in case shit went down—and after, while not (yet) in ruins, Sochi is nothing close to what Russian leaders (read: Putin) thought it would be. From the Wall Street Journal last February:
A year after the Winter Games, Sochi’s new Krasnaya Polyana ski resort is having its first full season—just as Russia’s oil-dependent economy heads for a wipeout.
The Kremlin trumpeted the construction bonanza around the Olympics—about $50 billion in infrastructure and other facilities—as an investment that would provide benefits for generations. Russian skiers and snowboarders are indeed taking to Sochi’s slopes, but the grandiose accommodations and high-speed train so far appear to exceed the market’s sustainable demand.
What about Beijing, which held the previous mark for the most expensive Olympic Games ever? This, from 2012:
It could take 30 years to pay off the $471 million bill for the Bird’s Nest, while the Water Cube lost about $1 million last year even after public financial assistance and the addition of a water park.
And those are the facilities still in use. Venues for kayaking, beach volleyball, BMX, and baseball sit untouched since 2008. Signage and landscaping appear to have gone without maintenance since the closing ceremonies.
Before the games in Beijing, organizers literally put up fences with photographs of happy Chinese families printed on them to keep the international fans and media from going into the “bad” parts of town, places that became overcrowded after many were kicked out of their homes so the organizers could build stadiums and arenas to use for two weeks and then abandon. This, again, from 2012:
See, unlike China’s empty malls or centrally-planned ghost towns, these Olympics venues weren’t always hollow shells. They were once massive and meticulously orchestrated affairs, exploding with life. Now they’re as cold and lifeless as the system of government that runs that country.
Before those Games, China somewhat miraculously lessened the pollution in the city; one of the worst major cities on the planet. The move may have made the Olympics healthier, but not the city. This, from Science Daily:
Exposure to high levels of pollution can have a significant impact on fetal growth and development, that is the conclusion of research appearing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The study found women who were pregnant during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when pollution levels were reduced by the Chinese government, gave birth to children with higher birth weights compared to those who were pregnant before and after the games.
Maybe there’s hope for a two-week, Zika-free Rio just yet!
Unlike Athens, the failures of the Beijing Olympics didn’t cripple the entire country’s economy, it merely displaced thousands of locals, spent billions of dollars the country has never made back and almost immediately after the closing ceremonies went back to being the same polluted city it was before.
Of course, hosting the Olympics hasn’t been all bad. While the lead up to the Vancouver Olympics was something of a disaster, with intense protests as the city organizers fought against rumors they were literally sweeping away its homeless citizens, that city wasn’t decimated in the same way as others. A long piece on the Olympics from the site VanCityBuzz.com in 2013 talks about how, despite the unrest for months leading into the games and the protests during, the Olympics themselves were a success, and the city was no worse for the wear four years later.
London, too, has done just fine, terror threats notwithstanding, in the wake of the 2012 Olympics. This, from The Guardian this past summer, quotes Neale Coleman, part of the committee set up to make sure the Olympic venues weren’t abandoned after the Games.
Depending on your point of view, all this represents grotesque overindulgence or a commendable exception to the usual Olympics rule, which holds that the showcase infrastructure falls into varying degrees of disuse and grand “legacy” pledges go unfulfilled. For Coleman, the positive interpretation clearly applies. “Never mind Athens, compare us with Sydney or Barcelona or Beijing as well. They’ve all struggled, but we’re on course to do what we said we would, and not just with the park and the venues.”
The takeaway from the London Games was that, perhaps, the IOC had finally learned from its mistakes in giving the Olympics to cities unequipped to handle the geopolitical stress. The only cities that can sustain the weight of an Olympics, both from an infrastructure standpoint and a financial one, are major cities.
London should be the model for all future Olympic Games, and at least in the Summer, and going with major cities able to handle the Olympics without much added cost or facilities seemed to be the new model, with Rio hosting in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020.
And yet, the Winter Games are going to Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018 and, yes, back to Beijing four years after that. Maybe the Bird’s Nest can be refurbished into a skate park by then. Who knows what they’ll do with the pollution this time.
Sure, the Olympics are big business, and someone on the ground is surely getting rich off each of these cities hosting the Games. The Olympics are likely to thrive now more than ever, as the world becomes smaller, travel around the globe becomes easier and social media connects each corner of the planet to the other.
In some ways, the Olympic ideals are more important than ever, too, logistics and cost be damned.
But when people in major American markets hold celebrations for NOT getting a Games, and we see all the decimation hosting the event does to cities—and countries—that think they’re prepared for the responsibility, it has to make any reasonable mind wonder why the powers that be in sports don’t bring together all the respective World Championships under one governing body, and combine them into a series of events throughout the year, hosted by cities all over the world?
Let’s have the “Olympic Games” every year, just not all at once and not in the same place.
Do we really need all our sports crammed into two weeks every four years anyway? Does the Olympic schedule make each individual event matter more?
Okay, fine. In a way, yeah, it does. The spirit of the Olympics is rivaled only by the World Cup in that way. But not if it can kill you, which is where we are with the Rio Games.
Not if it can destroy economies, like it has many in the past and surely, the future. And not if just walking around the city or taking a swim are as unsafe as this Summer’s Games will be.