- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2016

I’ve been blessed to cover a variety of major sporting events in 25-plus years as a journalist, including Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA tournaments, BCS bowl games and Kentucky Derbies, among others.

One event that constitutes an undesirable gap on my resume is the Olympics, an omission I’d love to address at some point. However, if given an opportunity to cover the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro this summer, I wouldn’t think twice about declining.

As much as I’d like to check off that experience from my bucket list, it’s not worth potentially kicking the bucket due to Zika virus.

OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “people usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika.”

However, more than 180 scientists and health experts have signed an open letter released on Friday, demanding that the Summer Olympics be moved or postponed. It cites the World Health Organization labeling Zika a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” and claims that going through with plans to hold the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro would be “unethical.”

Maybe it’s me, but inviting half a million visitors from more than 200 countries to a hotbed of public health concerns seems imprudent at the very least — especially for pregnant women, whose babies can suffer severe fetal brain defects. The CDC recommends that workers “consider delaying travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission.” Brazil fits that description all too well.

“I’m thinking about [whether to go],” Chicago Bulls center Pau Gasol told reporters in Madrid on Monday. “Just like every athlete, or any other persons considering going to Rio, should be thinking about it.”

Gasol, the Spanish basketball team’s most accomplished player, said he wouldn’t be surprised if some athletes opt out of the Olympics to putting their health and their family’s health at risk. I’ll be surprised if we don’t see a mass exodus.

The World Health Organization is doing its best to avoid that scenario.

“Based on the current assessment of Zika virus circulating in almost 60 countries globally and 39 countries in the Americas, there is no public health justification for postponing or canceling the Games,” WHO said in a statement released on Saturday, responding to the open letter. “WHO will continue to monitor the situation and update our advice as necessary.”

Far be it from me to question WHO’s objectivity and allegiance in this matter. Besides, that’s unnecessary, because the 180-plus scientists don’t mind.

“We are concerned that WHO is rejecting these alternatives (relocation or postponement) because of a conflict of interest,” the open letter read. “Specifically, WHO entered into an official partnership with the International Olympic Committee, in a Memorandum of Understanding that remains secret. There is no good reason for WHO not to disclose this Memorandum of Understanding, as is standard practice for conflicts of interest. Not doing so casts doubts on WHO’s neutrality.”

Quite a bit of money is at stake. Brazil budgeted around $13 billion to host the Games and expects a lasting economic impact though increased tourism, even though the extended boost didn’t materialize after the World Cup in 2014. Years of planning and resources devoted to the Olympiad make any alteration an abhorrent thought for organizers.

Athletes, some of whom have spent most of their lives training for the event, can feel the same way.

“Let’s see what happens,” tennis star Novak Djokovic told reporters on Sunday, adding that he needs more information but plans to participate for now. “To even think to cancel the Olympic Games is unthinkable, honestly. I mean, many athletes and people already planned in advance and so many people already planned their trips and accommodation in Rio.”

Flights, room reservations and anticipated revenue shouldn’t be considerations at all. A change of venue would be terrible for Brazil but it wouldn’t be the first an international athletic competition was affected by public health concerns.

Three Olympiads have been cancelled due to war — 1916, 1940 and 1944 — and the Women’s World Cup was moved from China to the U.S. in 2003 due to the outbreak of SARS.

In its recent statement, WHO said canceling or changing the location of the Games “will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.” The organization has lots of room for improvement if the goal is to reassure athletes, media and fans wondering if they should make the trip.

The scientists, in a response to WHO’s response, were undeterred. “Rio’s official data show that the rate of mosquito-transmitted disease is three times higher in early 2016 than early 2015, including a surprising increase in the precise neighborhood of the Olympic Park,” they said in a statement released on Monday. “… Clearly mosquito control and Zika control are not working as they must.”

Considering that evidence — and WHO’s possible conflict of interest — the Olympics are an “experience of a lifetime” that should be eschewed if they remain in Rio de Janeiro as scheduled.

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