Welcome to the Rio Zikalympics!
Just two years ago I wrote about preparations for World Cup 2014, in wherein we discovered the corruption of both Brazil’s wealthy elite and soccer’s governing body, FIFA. Sadly, only the event has changed. Oh, and there’s also a plague currently underway; Brazil is Ground Zero for the Zika virus. This alone is reason enough for concern, but the Brazilian government is in chaos, having impeached President Dilma Rousseff last May in what seems to have been a political coup by the Right. The Police are underpaid and threatening to strike, several of the venues still aren’t ready, and the crime rate is one of the highest in the world. There is huge wealth inequality and poverty, especially in the host city of Rio de Janeiro. Many athletes have pulled out just because of Zika. So let’s start with that, because last February saw half a million visit Carnaval, and the Olympics will have a million.
The Zika virus has been around a long time, mostly deep in the forests in low populated areas. By last year it had spread to an alarming degree and continues to be a major public health problem. This past May 12th ABC News reported on a study by the Harvard Public Review which said, “Unless the Olympics are postponed the games could cause a full-blown public health disaster,” and commented on the “irresponsibility in placing sports above public health.” But that’s the corporate business model, as we see in all major sports events. It’s all about the money.
I’ve assembled a few facts about Zika from the World Health Org. and CDC. The virus is carried and transmitted by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes (both of which are common throughout the Southern U.S.). Symptoms are mild fever, skin rash, muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis, malaise, and headache. Uncommonly, it can cause brain and auto immune problems, and there seems to be a link to developing Guillan-Barre syndrome in rare cases. Symptoms usually show up in 3-12 days, but 60-80% of those infected show no symptoms at all. The biggest danger is a birth defect called microcephaly, an abnormally small head and brain, and mortality rate is very high. Women who have been exposed are advised to wait 8 weeks before attempting to get pregnant. Since Zika has been found active in semen after 62 days, men should wait 6 months before having sex, even with protection. Many Olympic male athletes are freezing their sperm in advance.
I can’t say much about the state of the new government, but lately they’re in the process of passing austerity measures involving cuts to social programs. Brazil is going through their worst recession in 100 years, and the unemployment rate is about 11%. The vast wealth inequality and poverty has greatly improved in the past decade, but has much room for improvement. The highway from Rio’s airport to the main city goes past mile upon mile of shantytowns, called favelas. The city took a clue from Donald Trump and constructed a high wall along the route, so the poor remain invisible. Also, bus routes between the two areas have been cancelled; we can’t have the nice tourists exposed to the dirty, barefooted rabble, can we? There were huge protests before and during the World Cup, so last year a new “anti-terrorism” law was passed, pegged to the Olympics, which activists and human rights organizations say will criminalize many forms of peaceful protest. According to a coalition of Rio activists, Comite Popular, around 77,000 people have been forcibly evicted between 2009 and 2015, to make room for sports projects. Don’t forget the teenage gangs, many addicted to meth or crack cocaine, and they’re packing, baby.
According to Amnesty International, Brazilian police are among the most brutal in the world, having accounted for one in every five deaths in the city last year. That may not be a problem, though, as they’re short of fuel for their patrol cars. In late June visitors to the airport were greeted by a sign held up some police officers: “Welcome to Hell. Police and fire fighters don’t get paid. Whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.” 80,000 police will be on hand throughout the many venues, twice the number at London in 2012.
Nearly all of the $10 billion in construction contracts went to just five companies, all of whom are under investigation for price-fixing and kickbacks. The situation has already led to several executives being jailed or charged.
Sanitation has always been a big problem in Rio. Guanamara Bay, the venue for the sailing competition, has been described as “an open sewer,” with trash and the occasional dead body floating around. Recently a strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria was discovered there. In pre-Olympic swimming test events, several athletes became ill, some developing MRSA. As much as 60% of the waste in Rio is untreated, but if officials have tested the water, they haven’t let on. So, are you getting pumped up for the games, yet?
I almost forgot. The Russian track and field team has been banned, due to what appears to be a state-instituted doping program. The IOC, International Olympic Committee, is considering banning the entire Russian team. The program seems to go back to 2011, after Russia’s poor showing at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.
Each Olympics has its own goofy mascot. This one is Vinicius, supposedly an amalgamation of all the animals native to Brazil. It looks like a cross between Tony the Tiger and Hello Kitty. The Brazilian Olympic team will have its own mascot, a smiling, yellow cartoon jaguar named Ginga. How about a metaphor of what these games may hold in store? On June 22nd in Manaus, part of the torch relay event included a chained-up and tranquilized jaguar named Juma. Somehow she got free and approached a soldier, who shot her dead with a pistol. Afterwards, officials apologized and promised not to repeat this bad idea. The Amazon Jaguar is the official animal of Brazil, and it was shot dead. There’s your metaphor.
Now that Dr. Downer has passed water all over everyone’s corn flakes, why would anyone be excited about the Olympics? Because it’s not about the money, though much will be made by a few; it’s about the athletes, and it always has been. I’ve been a big “athletic supporter” since my childhood, and my favorite event has always been the Olympics; Winter games or Summer, I love them. We see the most gifted athletes on the planet competing against each other, and there’s little in sports drama to compare with an Olympic Final. Most of these athletes have prepared their whole lifetimes for these couple of weeks. Each has a story, and many are compelling. If only the goulish media wouldn’t search far and wide to find that one athlete whose little sister is dying of leukemia, then milk the life out of it.
These games will be special to many Brazilians, who are proud of their country. It will be the first Olympics ever to be held in South America in the event’s 120 year history. Each Olympics has new events and new stories, but this one is a first. Marching in as part of the Opening Ceremony’s parade of nations will be the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. It consists of ten athletes, each having qualified in his or her discipline, but who are refugees from their own country. Five of them are from the Sudan. They will have no flag, no country, and no national anthem. As the team is announced, the Olympic anthem will be played. I think that’s pretty special, and serves to underline my point that it’s about the athletes. While aware of all the problems, I plan to enjoy the competition. Now where did I put that mosquito repellant?