Zika virus affecting the Rio Olympics

Maracanã stadium, one of the venus chosen for some of the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. (credit: Photo Courtesy of Daniel basil via Wikimedia Commons.) Maracanã stadium, one of the venus chosen for some of the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. (credit: Photo Courtesy of Daniel basil via Wikimedia Commons.)

The fallout of the Zika virus as Brazil hosts the 2016 Summer Olympics depends on a lot of factors, but based on historic results, there a few ways Olympic crises usually work themselves out. Of course, this all depends on what scale the Zika virus continues to spread, and how severe its impact turns out to be.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), common symptoms of the virus are a fever, rashes, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. While a combination of these symptoms sounds unpleasant, the ailments are hardly deadly.

The real issues stem from how easily Zika spreads undetected, and whether or not it causes birth defects. It seems more and more likely that women who get Zika while pregnant are likely to have children with birth defects, most notably a brain defect called microcephaly, which can cause lifelong problems for the infants, and frequently results in death.

Brazil, the most heavily impacted country, has reported over 4,000 cases of microcephaly with potential ties to Zika. While the link between Zika and microcephaly hasn’t been confirmed, the jump in cases in countries with the virus points to a connection. So what will Brazil do? In the past, there has been a general ‘the show must go on’ mentality with the Olympic games. With the exception of the 1916, 1940, and 1944 games, which were cancelled because of the World Wars, every games has been run as planned independent of external forces.

So if the show goes on, how will it go? Looking back to the cost overruns of the 2014 World Cup hosted by Brazil (FIFA admits a cost of upwards of 15 billion USD), there is already cause for concern. Even without the complications of a birth defect causing virus, cost overruns have been a consistent problem for first time hosts of the Olympics, with the Sochi games having an estimated cost upward of 50 billion USD.
While cost overruns and runaway price tags are certainly an issue, the games have always run as planned through financial issues. With steep costs at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, events ran as planned and only after were the hosts left trying to recoup their losses.

Besides high costs, the default problem for an Olympic games is boycotting countries. Past historic boycotts have come from border disputes, apartheid protests, Cold War political statements, and even smaller regional disputes. While the last boycott was by North Korea in 1988, this option has often been taken advantage of, with seven boycotts held in the last 16 games.

This leaves the question of what it would take for the Zika virus to cause any form of boycott. To date, there are about 35,000 estimated cases of the virus in Brazil, many of which are not confirmed. In contrast, the CDC estimates that there were 60.8 million cases of the H1N1 flu virus in the United States during the 2009-2010 outbreak. For Brazil to have a proportionally large outbreak, there would need to be about 40 million cases of the Zika virus. However, if the correlation between the Zika virus and birth defects is confirmed, the picture would be different for the Zika virus. But which countries would boycott the games?

Since Zika is very difficult to contain in areas with mosquito populations and subpar medical systems, African and Southeast Asian countries where the disease could quickly spread have reason to consider caution. The island countries around the South China Sea are especially vulnerable, given past problems in these areas containing yellow fever, a disease spread by the same mosquito breed as Zika.
In addition to facing the prospect of intercontinental boycotts, Brazil may see countries close to home choose not participate. El Salvador, a small country south of Guatemala in central America, has asked its population to avoid having children until progress is made battling Zika. Could they go the next step, and ask people not to go to Brazil?

Even if a country isn’t worried about bringing Zika back from Brazil, they may prefer to keep the focus on combating the disease, instead of turning to the Olympic games. Take Columbia, which estimates 30,000 cases of its own. While an official boycott of the Olympic games may not be necessary, another Zika-hit country could easily choose not to participate in order to focus national efforts on the problem at hand.
With Zika becoming a bigger issue each day in Latin America, there are still a lot of options on the table for the 2016 Summer Olympics. But odds are good that most countries will still participate as planned.