Whether the failure of the World Health Organization (WHO) to recommend delaying the Rio Olympics will go down in history as a deadly misstep, expanding the global Zika pandemic, remains to be seen. But even if it doesn’t—and if athletes sidestep the pathogens teeming in the polluted Guanabara Bay, rich with untreated sewage, trash, and industrial waste—the Olympic Games in Rio as elsewhere will exact a significant toll on public health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which pointedly recommended that travelers consider delaying journeys to Zika-afflicted areas, the Games could spread Zika to some of the poorest and most remote countries in the world. And yet, just months after dubbing the Zika outbreak a public-health emergency of international concern, the WHO refused to heed calls from scores of public-health experts to recommend delaying or relocating the Games, allowing hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world to flock to the epicenter of an expanding global pandemic of a poorly understood, untreatable virus.
Mass sporting events have been postponed or relocated to prevent the spread of disease before. In 2003, FIFA relocated the Women’s World Cup from China to the United States to prevent the spread of SARS. In 2015, Morocco refused to host the African Cup of Nations for fear of the spread of Ebola. In May of this year, Major League Baseball moved a baseball series from Puerto Rico to Miami, citing the risk of Zika. Whether the WHO failed to do the same in Rio because of its faith in the mosquito-depressing effect of Rio’s cooler winter weather, as the agency has stated, or some less savory motive is unclear.
The WHO is the health arm of the United Nations. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which runs the games, enjoys a collaborative relationship with the UN, raising the specter of a possible conflict of interest. Like humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the IOC is an observer of the UN General Assembly, and has been collaborating with the WHO since 2010, when the IOC and the WHO signed a memorandum of understanding.
In the absence of reliable and coherent public-health advice, spooked Olympics delegations to Rio have taken matters into their own hands. South Korea outfitted its team with special “Zika-proof” uniforms pretreated with insecticides, and Australia provided its team with “Zika-free” condoms spiked with antimicrobial compounds. The US indoor volleyball coach took the time to freeze his Zika-free sperm before getting on a flight to Rio. Meanwhile, some of the top athletes in the world, such as golfers Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, forsook their Olympic dreams and just stayed home, rather than risk the bite of an infected mosquito.
If Zika does expand thanks to the Olympics, it won’t be the first pathogen to exploit a mass sporting event. The role of the Olympics and the World Cup in sparking outbreaks may pale in comparison to the massive, unrelenting, and unchecked dissemination of pathogens through commercial air travel, but they’ve facilitated outbreaks nevertheless. A vicious outbreak of influenza during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, grounded at least one athlete from every delegation, forcing several top athletes to watch their long-awaited events from the refuge of their beds. Norovirus broke out during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa during a measles epidemic, ferried the virus into measles-free Argentina. The largest measles outbreak in over a dozen years transpired in British Columbia thanks to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, hitting Aboriginal people especially hard. Experts suspect that mass sporting events themselves—either the 2014 World Cup in Rio or an international canoe race—could have brought Zika to Brazil in the first place.