American cyclist Tejay van Garderen understands the chances that he might contract the Zika virus at the Rio Olympics are minimal, and that precautions could be taken to further reduce the threat.
With a pregnant wife at home, not even the smallest risk was worth it.
Van Garderen withdrew his name from consideration for the road cycling team Thursday, making him perhaps the first U.S. athlete to back out of the Summer Games because of the mosquito-borne illness blamed for causing birth defects including microcephaly, in which the baby’s brain does not develop properly.
“I don’t want to risk bringing anything back that could potentially have an effect,” van Garderen said in an email to The Associated Press. “If the circumstances were different I would have loved to be selected again to represent the USA, but my family takes priority and it’s a decision I’m completely comfortable with.”
USA Cycling spokesman Kevin Loughery said van Garderen is the only rider to back out of consideration for the U.S. cycling team. The final rosters for road, BMX and mountain biking are expected June 24.
Van Garderen, a member of the 2012 Olympic team in London, would have been a likely choice for one of the two U.S. spots in the road race. The 27-year-old Tour de France veteran is a strong time trial rider and his climbing ability would have been well-suited to the hilly course at the Rio Olympics.
But van Garderen’s wife, Jessica, is due in October, and there is evidence that suggests the disease can be transmitted sexually or through blood-to-blood contact.
“I hope that I’ll be in the position to race at the 2020 Olympic Games,” van Garderen said.
CyclingTips was first to report that van Garderen had backed out.
The decision comes a month after Marc Leishman said he would not play golf for Australia at the Olympics in August, citing concerns over Zika. His wife, Audrey, nearly died last year from toxic shock syndrome and Leishman decided he couldn’t risk the trip to Brazil.
Rio organizers told the International Olympic Committee executive board on Thursday in Lausanne, Switzerland, that the Zika threat should diminish dramatically during Brazil’s winter months. They showed a graphic indicating the rate of infection falls significantly from June to September.
“The rate of infection drops to very low numbers, very near zero,” Rio spokesman Mario Andrada said.
Organizing committee chief Carlos Nuzman said athletes such as Usain Bolt, Rafael Nadal and members of the U.S. basketball team have said they have no worries, though others - including U.S. soccer player Hope Solo and tennis star Serena Williams - have expressed reservations.
“This is no public health risk” that would warrant postponing or moving the games, Nuzman said.
Andrada said zero cases of Zika were recorded during 44 test events involving 7,000 athletes and 8,000 volunteers. Rio organizers will ramp up a campaign to convince athletes and visitors the games will be safe, though Andrada said pregnant women or women planning to get pregnant should take precautions.
“We believe women that are planning pregnancies have to take extra care and it is up to them and their family to decide,” Andrada said. “They have to make this decision in privacy.”
Last week, a group of 150 health experts called for the Rio Games to be moved or postponed because of Zika. The World Health Organization said there was “no public health justification” for such a step.
IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Thursday he had not heard about van Garderen’s withdraw, but added that the committee “follows the recognized global authority on health, the WHO.”
“Everyone would expect a sports organization to follow the advice of the authority,” Adams said. “They issued new advice on Saturday with some clear steps to be taken especially involving pregnant women. We think that’s good advice and we stick by it.”
U.S. track cyclist Sarah Hammer, who will compete in two events at the Rio Games, told the AP that she is not concerned about Zika but that she is educating herself before traveling to Brazil.
“There’s always something. In Beijing it was air quality, in London it was security,” Hammer said. “Am I worried? No. Am I totally ignorant on it? No. I’m going to take all the proper precautions I need.”
Hammer has actually been to the Amazon rainforest several times on vacation, though never during such a public health crisis. But she said “I’ve always protected myself. And that’s what we’ll do.”
USA Cycling chief executive Derek Bouchard-Hall said the U.S. Olympic Committee has taken the lead on education athletes and “we defer to them” when it comes to preparations.
Bouchard-Hall did acknowledge South America’s first Olympics has been beset by problems.
“I think it has been dogged more than normal and some of the things are beyond their control, and some are not,” he told the AP. “For us, it’s the velodrome (delays) and some infrastructure problems and the Zika virus, which is not Brazil’s fault per se. But they’re facing a lot of difficult challenges.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Wilson contributed from Lausanne, Switzerland.
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