While Zika hits Miami, concerns remain in Rio ahead of Olympics

Dan Wetzel
Stores are well-stocked with insect repellent as the threat of Zika looms in Brazil.
Stores are well-stocked with insect repellent as the threat of Zika looms in Brazil.

RIO DE JANEIRO – Front and center in a market here inside the Olympic Park, the display and array of bug-fighting products is jarring.

Five rows of shelves, stuffed with cans of sprays designed to repel or flat-out kill, Brazilian and American brands sitting side by side, nearly 600 in all. That doesn’t include nearly 75 more on a few shelves around the corner or the unopened boxes upon boxes of reserves stacked in the rear of the store. And this is but one shop among many.

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As a troubling Zika outbreak hits Miami back in the United States, precaution and fear remain high here at the Olympics, where some half a million athletes, workers and visitors will arrive this month at the disease’s ground zero. Soon after, they’ll depart with who knows what in their system. Some health experts suggested the games be canceled or moved because even though this is winter in Brazil, it’s still relatively warm and humid.

Others said the threat isn’t that big, that the only thing to fear is fear itself, even for a disease that has been known to produce serious birth defects in newborns.

[Related: Rio Olympics security firm fired, maligned police force takes over]

“This won’t be an issue during the Olympics,” said Daniel Soranz, the local health secretary at a news conference Sunday. “Since two weeks before the Games, the number of cases were almost nonexistent. In the city, cases are very rare and for us, it is an issue that we have more than overcome.”

The truth is that no one knows, which is why every smart shopkeeper across Rio and beyond has overstocked with sprays and creams, repellents and poisons. It’s unfair to distrust Soranz’s learned opinion, but it is also clear local officials are desperate to attract tourists and apply a triage to the flow of negative stories about these Olympics.

Some athletes, mostly high-profile golfers, have declined to participate because of the virus. Ticket sales and expected visitors are both below expectations, with Zika being cited as a primary reason.

“We’re dubbing the Rio Olympics 2016 the ‘stay-at-home Olympics,’” said Becky Tasker, managing analyst at Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement. ADI analyzed over 80,000 airline flight bookings to Rio and deemed travel from the United States as “lagging,” especially compared to the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil also hosted.

There is no lack of concerns here over the Games, from pollution to traffic to security. Disgusted triathletes are being told to keep their mouths closed as they swim through sewage-infested waters. Other athletes are unhappy with substandard or unfinished housing.

Those problems and many others don’t approach the significance of Zika though, as all visitors will be susceptible to mosquito bites but only a small segment of athletes will swim in the polluted waters. A rather pathetic comparison, but welcome to the Rio Games.

[Related: American sailor helps clean toxic bay set for use in Olympics]

Even a moderate infection outbreak would then immediately be brought to all corners of the globe. It is by far the most considerable threat at the Olympics because no one has a full grasp on the danger Zika represents or how it can be contained.

Back in the United States, on Monday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised pregnant women to not enter a one-square-mile section north of downtown Miami, an area that could very well expand. There was a request for federal dollars to immediately address the emergency.

“We don’t have ideal ways to control the mosquitoes that control Zika,” said CDC director Tom Frieden after 14 cases were confirmed. “In Miami, aggressive mosquito control measures don’t seem to be working as well as we would have liked.”

And there’s the problem and enduring question about these Olympics: If a modern American city doesn’t have an ideal way to handle this, why would anyone truly believe a sprawling, impoverished Brazilian one does?

Should the Games have been moved? Or, considering the logistical challenges of such an undertaking, couldn’t they have been split up – track and field in London, swimming in China, gymnastics in Los Angeles, etc. Was precaution even considered?

It certainly wasn’t considered very much by the International Olympic Committee, which ignored various studies and statements by health experts. The World Health Organization disagreed and said it wouldn’t be a problem. In the end, the IOC stuck with under-duress Rio to deal with it. It remains a gamble.

[Related: Rio mayor blames Olympics organizing committee for problems]

IOC president Thomas Bach has repeatedly stated his confidence that everything will be fine, but he’s also said as much about a local organizing committee that remains overwhelmed by construction delays and operational obstacles even as the torch is set to be lit Friday. Rio is still very much a work in progress, a ticking deadline be damned.

These are high stakes though. Eventually the traffic will move and presumably the actual sporting venues will be suitable for competition.

The Games are going to happen. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but based on an Olympic store’s shelf after shelf, can after can of repellents and insecticides, no one is so confident they aren’t taking every precaution imaginable.

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