Olympics Assurances

By Yuk-kuen Annie Cheung PhD, RPP

Annie Cheung

The newly-minted Brazilian Sports Minister Leonardo Picciani announced in June that Rio de Janeiro is ready for the 2016 Olympics. It was then that it became clear the Games will be a go ahead on August 5, albeit under an unprecedented atmosphere of insecurity.

In May, Brazil’s democratically elected head of state, Dilma Rousseff, was suspended from her post as President. The interim government, which replaces her, is currently under a cloud of embarrassment in a series of scandalous connections to colossal graft schemes. 318 of its 594 members of congress are currently under investigation.

Less than two weeks before the Games’ opening, Brazilian police arrested 12 people for a terrorist plot, targeting the Olympics.

Meanwhile, the latest economic figures indicate Brazil’s economy shrank 5.4 percent in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2015. According to some, the country now faces the worst economic recession in a generation and the worst economic development in a century.

In addition, Brazil is suffering from a serious Zika virus outbreak. In recent months the World Health Organization has sent teams of investigators four times to look into Zika virus infestation in the country. On June 1st the WHO again, yielding to a request made in an open letter signed by 200 international scientists requesting the Games be moved or postponed, sent in the Zika emergency committee team, “…to examine the risks of holding the Olympic Summer Games as currently scheduled.”

The health concern for the large number of soon-to-arrive visitors (Olympians, organizers and spectators) congregating at an epicenter of a serious virus outbreak is significant. If still no vaccine or cure can be attained in time, the epidemic could spread rapidly to become global, and the 1.1 million foreign “tourists” (or purchasers of tickets from abroad) attending the Brazil Olympics will serve involuntarily as potential vectors in the epidemic. Ten days before the Games’ opening, the WHO issued again a comprehensive health advisory for travelers to the Games.

In addition, there are vocal concerns over inferior engineering and construction in some prototype built facilities. As well, there are still questions over poor environmental conditions in the open-water sporting venues.

Amidst it all, the momentum reached on the financial front is a significant consideration for the national and international stakeholders. Two weeks before the opening, according to the organizer, only about 74 percent of tickets have been sold. The American television network NBC, however, has already sold record advertising, valued at over $1 billion. The total cost estimate for hosting the Games was $9.8 billion, a very sizable financial commitment already made, and the tallies in the Olympic project’s final balance sheet will be the stuff of political bickering, even social discontent, as Brazil spirals into a deep recession.

Already there are projections that the costs far exceed what ticket sales, endorsements and tourism could possibly generate; and that makes it urgent to fill the venues for the events to capacity. Besides, it is expected that some international tourists may drop out from fear of a myriad of security threats, including contracting the Zika virus. Thus it was not surprising that in June Minister Picciani declared loud and clear, “All the mechanisms of prevention and protection [against the spreading of Zika virus] are guaranteed.” And that “he was convinced athletes would be safe.”

Certainly, as of June 7, 2016, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Tom Frieden, maintained, “there [was] ‘no public health reason’ to cancel the Olympics…” But on its website’s update, CDC recommends pregnant women not to go to the Olympics, and that among other advice, travelers should consider purchasing travel health and medical evacuation insurance.

In spite of the strong “guarantee”, countries are sending off their athletes to Brazil with precautions: South Korean athletes will be wearing uniforms made of insect repellant covered fabrics; the Australian Olympics authority provided “Zika-proof” condoms to its athletes. There are also athletes withdrawing from the competition.

It is absolutely understandable that, for those who have been trained to peak performance at the time of the competition, it would be tragic indeed should the competition be postponed. Relocating the venue is not on the table. So relying on the authorities’ assurances and respecting their many commitments, most athletes are likely to choose to go to the Olympics.

For those of us who support the Olympic spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play, and appreciate the athlete experience as motivating, we must also see the predicaments confronting our brothers, sisters and Olympians; they must not be treated as gladiators of ancient Rome.

It is clear that, on the count down and before we send our athletes to these Games, we must ask, will there be tangible guarantees for those of them who may become ill afterwards as a result of their participation? Have our teams purchased the necessary insurance to cover any financial loss relating to the extraordinary risk factors at the Brazil Olympics, up to and including contracting the Zika virus? Will risks have already been covered sufficiently under existing employment and sponsorship contracts? Are there additional considerations and individual responsibilities to be assumed by each and every national team member?

How can we possibly put in place measures to screen and to prevent any latent or incubating viruses from spreading by the returning 1.1 million Olympic Games’ international tourists?

At this juncture, we may let the Fundamental Principles of Olympism be the guide for the Games’ organizers and athletes! As for us, spectators and citizens around the world, the true spirit of the Olympic movement, of the testing of human capacity and resilience in sportsmanship and mutual excellence in achievements heretofore considered impossible, are worthy goals for all of us to uphold.

But – and here’s the rub – not at any cost! We must make every effort and take every precaution to ensure that all our athletes will go home to their family and friends, safe and sound, after the Games and that any residual pain be confined to the normal disappointments of competition in sport.

Yuk-kuen Annie Cheung PhD, RPP is a registered professional urban and regional planner and a published author. She is an Associate with the York Centre for Asian Research, York University, and is serving on the Editorial Board of OMNES – the Journal of Multicultural Society, published in Seoul.

Apart from topics on sustainable development, her latest research has been on the implication and application of universal values in governance, such as with respect to pluralism, minority rights; and civil society engagement.

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