An Olympic Sized Disaster: The Many Ways The Rio Summer Games Can Go Wrong

There are few things in this world as reassuring and satisfying as the moment when, after shuffling through the crowded corridors of a stadium concourse, you catch your first glimpse of baseball field before a game. Everything about it, from the crack of batting practice bats and the thuck of balls sticking in gloves to the pristinely manicured grass and the protractor-straight foul lines seems designed to make those of us who grew up with the game sink into nostalgic reverie. Travel around the world and you’ll find tens of millions of people who share this deeply engrained love of the game baseball. From America to Cuba to Venezuela to Japan, the sport is cooked into the DNA of many countries to the point that it is used as a diplomatic tool and a defining part of our national identities. Greece, it should be pretty safe to say, is not one of these countries.

And yet, despite an almost total lack of enthusiasm for or knowledge of the game of baseball, the Greek government decided to construct not one, but two new baseball stadiums in preparation for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. Built as part of the Hellinikon Olympic Complex just outside of Athens, these two stadiums—an 8,700 seater for baseball and a smaller, 4,000 seat venue for softball—sat alongside a newly constructed field hockey stadium, a canoe/kayak slalom center, and a 15,000 seat indoor arena for basketball and handball. With a price tag of $213 million, you would expect the Greek government to have put together some sort of plan to help repurpose the various venues in the Hellinikon Olympic Complex once the 2004 Summer Olympics were finished and you would be wrong.

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The Hellinikon Baseball Stadium outside Athens, used for a handful of games and now the home to hundreds of Afghani refugees

Within a few years, almost all of the stadiums and structures that had been built for the Summer Olympics lay unoccupied and fallow, the lone exception being the indoor arena that would wind up hosting a basketball game every now and again. Suddenly immersed in one of the most severe debt crises of the 21st century, the pre-crisis spending of the Greek government now seems like folly to many and any hopes of maintaining or improving these barely used facilities that wound up costing Greece $10 billion to build all but went out the window. In an ironic twist of fate, the baseball fields and stadiums in Hellinikon and other Greek Olympic structures are full again, only this time it’s not with spectators and athletes, but with Afghani, Iraqi and Pakistani refugees stuck in a sort of Hellenic purgatory—unable to press forward into Germany, yet unwilling to go back to their dangerous and war-torn homelands.

I only bring up the cautionary tale that was the Greek Olympic experiment because this summer brings with it the latest iteration of the Summer games in Rio de Janeiro and all signs point to it being an even bigger disaster than the Athens games were. This is because, despite the virtually non-existent planning for use of the facilities after the Olympics were over, Athens games themselves went relatively smoothly and was devoid of much serious controversy. Sure, the construction of many of the venues and additional infrastructure improvements were behind schedule in the months leading up to the games, but by the opening ceremony everything was in tip-top shape. This lack of controversy is a big departure from 2 of the last 3 Olympic games, with the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing being blighted by intense air pollution, media censorship and the forced displacement of 1.5 million people, and the hot mess that was the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, with it’s brown water, unfinished hotels, blatant graft, anti-LGBT stance and culling of stray dogs. And, unless a superhuman amount of progress is made before August, the 2016 Rio games promise to be worse than any of its 21st century predecessors.

Unfortunately for Brazil, the scandal getting the most press at the moment regarding the Rio games is one that’s largely not of their making. In recent months, the spread of the Zika virus throughout Brazil and most of the nations of the Americas has become headline news across the world, predominantly due to a rise in the incidence of microcephaly, a rare birth defect that leaves newborns with a significantly underdeveloped brain and skull. While there has been nothing definitive proving a link between Zika and microcephaly, the endemic spread of the virus combined with the correlational relationship between the increase in Zika infection and microcephaly have led the World Health Organization to declare it a public health emergency and caused the CDC to issue a recommendation that pregnant women avoid travel to any nation reporting ongoing transmission of the virus.

Back in January, I wrote a piece arguing that the reaction to the Zika virus—especially in the United States—was not proportionate to the threat it posed, especially when very similar diseases that have wider spreads and effect more people were getting very little press. While I still stand by my assertions that much of the media coverage of Zika—which has died down considerably in recent weeks—was due to the macabre nature of the microcephaly it may have caused, the Rio Olympics present nothing less than a global public health nightmare. In last few weeks, the CDC has reported that sexual transmission of the Zika virus has now been proven, while a recent article in The Lancet provided the first concrete evidence that Zika can cause Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can lead to partial or near-total paralysis and, in rare cases, death. However, it is the sheer size and scale of the Rio Olympics that is most troubling.

The exact way in which Zika came to South America has yet to be proven, but the most compelling and widely used hypothesis is that it came over during the 2014 World Cup in the blood stream of one or more of the millions of soccer fans that descended on Brazil for the tournament. Once there, it’s supposed that one or more mosquitos took a blood meal from the infected individual(s) and it spread from there. Considering the fact that 590,000 overseas tourists came to Great Britain for the 2012 London Olympics and that there have 1.5 million detected Zika cases in Brazil, the chances that someone might leave the Rio Olympics after being bit by an infected mosquito are not insubstantial. And, while the most endemic areas of Zika infections have been in the northeast of the country—thousands of miles away from Rio de Janeiro where most of the events will be held—the risks of contracting the virus are still significant.


A Brazilian worker disinfects in Rio de Janeiro, trying to kill off the Zika-carrying mosquitos in the city (EPA/Marcelo Sayao)

If Zika were the only potential issue with Rio Olympics it would be bad enough, but there is another problem that does not pose a global health threat, but which has a greater impact on the daily lives of the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro and will most likely have a direct effect on the athletes themselves. That problem is the fact that the waters in Rio de Janeiro which will play host to many of the events in the 2016 Summer Olympics are filthy and there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that the Brazilian government will be able to fully clean it up by August. And when I say the waters are filthy, I don’t mean that they’re filled with sediment or algae or even the usual amounts of plastic and trash that can be found in our oceans. I mean they’re massive, tidal septic tanks brimming with hot garbage.

When asked what was in the water surrounding Rio by ESPN reporter Tom Farrey for the program Outside The Lines, Brazilian biologist and environmental activist Mario Mascotelli gave a simple response: “shit…shit”. Colorful language aside, no one in Rio would accuse Mascotelli of lying about the city’s dirty sort-of-secret. In Guanabara Bay, where 3 of the 5 Olympic sailing competitions are going to be held, an astounding 150,000 gallons of it is dumped into the bay every minute. When Rio was selected as the host city for the 2016 games, they promised to clean up their waters in general and Guanabara Bay in particular, saying they would have at least 80% of the sewage entering the bay be treated by the time the Olympic began. At present, roughly 60% of all incoming sewage is being treated, a marked improvement over the 12% that was being treated back in 2009, but still far from making the water safe for competition. Kristina Mena, a waterborne virus expert at the University of Texas, told Outside The Lines that the athletes risk of infection in the waters was severe, with odds of being infected reaching as high as 99% in certain areas.

Besides the awful quality of their water and the risk of fanning the flames of a global health emergency, Rio 2016’s financial outlook has taken a big hit as well. Ticket sales for the games, which had been seeing steady increases through the end of 2015, plummeted at the start of 2016 in the wake of the CDC’s travel advisory and WHO’s global health emergency declaration, falling 56.4% in the second half of January and continuing its downward trajectory into February. Add to that the fact that the costs of preparing for the games have risen just under $100 million since August and that less than 50% of tickets for the Olympic games and only 12 to 15 percent of the tickets for the Paralympic Games have sold, and it’s hard to see how Rio de Janeiro doesn’t wind up taking a bath on this venture. With Brazil in the midst of one the worst recessions in the country’s recent history, this combination of overspending and underselling couldn’t have come at a worse time.


Rowers prepare to begin a day’s practice surrounded by dead fish in the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, one of many extremely polluted bodies of water scheduled for used during the Rio games (Reuters)


This late in the game, it would appear that Rio’s bed is already made and the organizers have no choice but to go ahead as scheduled in August. The only feasible changes that could be made at this juncture would be to either relocate or reschedule the Olympic events taking place in Guanabara Bay and any other unsafe body of water and set loose all the king’s horses and all the king’s men through the streets of Rio de Janeiro to make sure every last puddle and bit of standing water they can find in the city is dried up so the Zika-carrying mosquitos don’t have a place to breed. With that being said, neither option holds much promise as the powers that be in Rio and in the International Olympic Committee have doubled down on the safeness of the waters for competition and, given the failure to mobilize the political and financial will to properly clean up Rio’s waters it’s hard to have too much confidence in the abilities of the organizers and the government to eliminate all of the standing water in the city.

In recent years, it has become harder and harder to convince developed nations to host the Olympics, with many cities seeing very little upside to holding an event that entails massive development costs for facilities that will be difficult and expensive to keep running once the games are over. Add to that the increased burden on taxpayers, susceptibility to terror attacks, disruption of everyday life and the potential displacement of residents and the prospect of hosting Olympics have become so undesirable in America that a massive grassroots campaign to prevent Boston from bidding to win the 2024 games sprung up last year. Things aren’t much better in Europe, where 4 cities withdrew bids or candidacies due to a lack of political and popular support. As a result, the 2022 Winter Olympics were awarded to Beijing, a city that receives so little snow that they’re going to have to make the vast majority of it for the games, with the only other nation still bidding at the end being the small, authoritarian, oil producing nation of Kazakhstan.

But worrying about the fate of future Olympic games or the fallout from Olympics past will have to wait. Right now, the world’s focus will be on Rio 2016 and, for most of us, the only thing we can do is wait, watch and hope the Zika virus has a much harder time getting out of Brazil than it had getting in.


Categories: Environmental News, Public Health, Sports

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