In Brief

Zika: An Olympic sized problem as Jordan Spieth pulls out

Organisers remain defiant over virus despite the withdrawal of another big name amid calls to move or postpone the 2016 Games

As Brazil prepares for the arrival of 16,000 athletes and more than 600,000 visitors, calls to have this summer's Olympic Games in Rio postponed or even cancelled because of the Zika virus have grown. 

And this week there was more bad news for organisers as yet another of the world's top golfers, Jordan Spieth, pulled out of the tournament over fears about the disease, prompting more debate over the risks posed by the mosquito-borne illness.

Mass gatherings of people on the scale of the Olympics always bring with them a threat of an outbreak but the virus appears to be a unique foe for Rio's organisers. Some 80 per cent of cases have no symptoms and so won't be detected in a syndrome surveillance system that proved so effective at the London Games. 

"If Brazil and the International Olympic Committee aren't up to the challenge, as they think they are, their decision to proceed with the Games could detrimentally impact much of the globe," says CNN.

What is Zika? 

The virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also transmits dengue fever and chikungunya. The first human case was identified in Nigeria in 1954, and outbreaks were later reported in other parts of Africa, south-east Asia, the Pacific Islands and now Latin America.

Symptoms, which are typically mild and only appear in one in four people, include a low-grade fever, joint and muscle pain and conjunctivitis. For most people, the infection isn't harmful. However, the disease is known to cause microcephaly, a severe and potentially deadly birth defect that affects brain development.

The World Health Organisation has issued a directive to pregnant women to avoid travelling to Zika-stricken regions, while those living in affected countries have been advised to use mosquito repellent and either abstain from sex or use condoms.

Zika has also been linked to neurological disorder Guillain–Barre syndrome in some rare cases.

Is Brazil safe?

Last month, a group of more than 100 scientists wrote a letter to the World Health Organization claiming it would be "unethical" for the Games to go ahead.

Speaking to The Guardian, Amir Attaran, a public health specialist in Canada, described the idea of going ahead with the Games as both "indescribably foolish" and "monstrously unethical". The potential risks range from brain-damaged children to death in rare instances, he added. "Is this what the Olympics stand for?"

So far Rio stands defiant against the naysayers and the mosquitoes, with Sidney Levy, the head of the Rio organising committee, telling Voice of America the disease "won't be a problem" at the Games. "I now have 4,000 people who are working currently in the venues, in the parks and on the beaches in T-shirts, and I have not a single case of Zika," he said.

Some experts in public health and infectious disease are supporting Brazil's decision. Dr Mary Wilson of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, which is currently working with the University of California, San Francisco, told CNN that because the Games are held in one city and during a colder time of year, officials should be able to reduce the risk of Zika to an acceptable level.

What do the athletes think?

Most seem unfazed by the virus – although many of golf's biggest names have pulled out of the tournament citing concerns over Zika.

The latest is Jordan Spieth, who joined the rest of the world's top four - Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy - in pulling out of the event.

"Spieth's decision means none of the world's top four ranked players and six of the leading ten will not appear when golf returns to the Games this summer following a 112-year absence," reports The Guardian.

Last month world number one Jason Day explained his reasons for pulling out. "A decision to compete in Rio absolutely comes with health risks to me and to my family. My wife Ellie and I have been blessed with two wonderful and healthy children and our plan is to have more," he said.

Experts are split over their decision, reports the BBC. Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, described McIlroy's decision as "extreme". But Dr Derek Gatherer, a lecturer in biomedical and life sciences at Lancaster University, said: "If McIlroy is contemplating becoming a father within a year or so, then it is a perfectly reasonable precaution to stay away from regions of active Zika transmission.

British long jumper Greg Rutherford has chosen another way of dealing with the threat. He will compete at Rio but has had his sperm frozen so he and his partner, Suzie Verrill, who will not travel to the Games, can still try for a family after the event.

Zika virus: Rio Olympics blow as golfer Justin Day pulls out

29 June

Golf's return to the Olympics is in danger of turning into a PR disaster for Rio after world number one Jason Day became the latest player to pull out because of the Zika virus.

"A decision to compete in Rio absolutely comes with health risks to me and to my family. My wife Ellie and I have been blessed with two wonderful and healthy children and our plan is to have more," he said.

"While it has always been a major goal to compete in the Olympics on behalf of my country, playing golf cannot take precedent over the safety of our family. I will not place them at risk."

The 28-year-old Australian is the seventh major champion to withdraw from the Games, following in the footsteps of Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Vijay Singh and Graeme McDowell. 

The news is a "huge blow" for golf, says James Corrigan in the Daily Telegraph, "and will raise further concerns that, after a 112-absence, the sport will not last past Tokyo 2020 on the Games's roster".

Not all those who have withdrawn have done so because of fears over Zika, although this was the reason cited by the two biggest absentees, McIlroy and now Day. 

Australia and Ireland have been particularly badly hit by the absences, with Irish reserve Shane Lowry also making himself unavailable on Tuesday, citing the virus.

"The world number two Jordan Spieth is understood to be considering his position while the Masters champion Danny Willett and Rickie Fowler have publicly expressed doubt about their Olympic participation," warns The Guardian.

However, some have suggested that a lack of prize money in Rio could be a contributing factor.

NBA star LeBron James, another well-paid professional athlete, has also withdrawn from Rio, although he has not blamed the Zika virus. US cyclist Tejay van Garderen pulled out because his wife is pregnant, reports the BBC.

Zika, a mosquito-borne illness, can cause birth defects and has been linked to the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre. Last month, a group of more than 100 scientists wrote a letter to the World Health Organization claiming it would be "unethical" for the Games to go ahead.

However, Sidney Levy, the head of the Rio organising committee, told Voice of America the disease "won't be a problem" at the Games.

"I now have 4,000 people that are working currently in the venues, in the parks and on the beaches in T-shirts and I have not a single case of Zika," he said.

Rory McIlroy pulls out of Rio Olympics over Zika fears

22 June

Golfer Rory McIlroy has pulled out of the Rio Olympics citing fears over the Zika virus, telling the Irish team that competing would be "a risk I am unwilling to take".

McIlroy, who is hoping to start a family with his fiancee Erica Stoll, said in a statement: "After speaking with those closest to me, I've come to realise that my health and my family's health comes before anything else."

The mosquito-borne Zika virus has been linked to birth defects and the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre. "Pregnant women have been advised not to travel to areas where there are outbreaks of Zika, while women have also been advised to avoid falling pregnant in these areas," reports the BBC

McIlroy, who comes from Northern Ireland but chose to represent Ireland in 2014, has elected not to travel because of those concerns.

"The 27-year-old's withdrawal is a huge blow for the sport's return to the Games after a 112-year absence. McIlroy is the fifth major winner to remove his name from consideration, following Adam Scott, Vijay Singh, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. The world number one, Jason Day, is also believed to be on the brink of ruling himself out."

The Olympic Committee of Ireland said it was "extremely disappointed" by McIlroy's announcement but added that it "respected his decision".

Concerns about Zika have "cast a shadow over Rio 2016", says the Telegraph but the organisers have resisted calls for the Games to be moved or postponed.

Experts are split over McIlroy's decision, reports the BBC.

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, described McIlroy's decision as "extreme". But Dr Derek Gatherer, a lecturer in biomedical and life sciences at Lancaster University, said: "If Mr McIlroy is contemplating becoming a father within a year or so, then it is a perfectly reasonable precaution to stay away from regions of active Zika transmission."

Rory McIlroy could pull out of Olympics over Zika threat

24 May

Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy has admitted he is worried about participating in the Rio Olympics because of fears over Zika.

The world number three is due to represent Ireland in Brazil when the sport returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1904. However, McIlroy has admitted he is facing a dilemma over Zika.

The 27-year-old is hoping to start a family with his fiancee, Erica Stoll, but is aware of the dangers posed by the mosquito-borne disease, which can be transmitted sexually and has been linked to birth defects in babies.

McIlroy told the BBC he was "monitoring" the situation. "There's going to be a point in the next couple of years where we are going to have to think about starting a family. Right now I'm ready to go but I don't want anything to affect that," he said.

Several leading golfers have already withdrawn from the Olympics, reports The Times, and "the presence of big names such as McIlroy is crucial to the success of the event".

The spread of the virus in Brazil "has led health professionals to question whether the Olympics should be postponed, given the high concentration of cases in the Rio area", adds the paper.

McIlroy's subdued body language was "arguably more telling than his words", says The Guardian. The paper adds that if McIlroy did elect not to take part his absence would be "keenly felt".

However, McIlroy has threatened to quit the Olympics before, notes the Daily Mail.

"McIlroy had been eligible to compete for either Great Britain or Ireland this summer but contemplated withdrawing from the event in order to avoid upsetting anyone with his choice," says the paper. "He eventually opted to continue representing Ireland, as he did throughout his amateur career and twice in the World Cup."

Rio Olympics: Kenya and US express concern over Zika threat

09 February

Kenya has threatened to pull out of this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro if Brazil's Zika outbreak reaches epidemic levels.              

"We are not going to risk taking Kenyans there if this Zika virus reaches epidemic levels," said Kipchoge Keino, chairman of Kenya's Olympic body and gold-medallist at the 1968 Games. 

"Kenya topped the medal table at last year's World Athletics Championships and the country's absence would be severely felt on the track as they boast many of the best middle and long-distance runners in the world," says the BBC.

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the mosquito-borne virus a global public health emergency.

With Russian athletes unlikely to participate after being banned from international competition over the discovery of a systematic doping programme, the news is another blow for the Games.

But there could be worse to come. Reuters reports that the US Olympic Committee has said "athletes and staff concerned for their health over the Zika virus should consider not going" to Rio.

It is "the latest sign that Olympics officials are taking the Zika threat to the games in Rio de Janeiro seriously, and acknowledging that at least some athletes and support staff could face a tough decision over whether to attend".

The US finished top of the medals table at the London Games in 2012 and "any disruption to its presence would be important", says Reuters.

The Olympic committees of Australia and New Zealand have "already warned their athletes of the potential dangers for pregnant women" from the Zika virus.

Last week, Martyn Rooney, who captained the Great Britain athletics team at the World Championships last year, told the Daily Telegraph it would be "irresponsible" for his wife and child to visit Brazil unless the risk from Zika was reduced. Rio, he said, was "a pretty dangerous place to bring your family".

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