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The last time the Olympics went viral


The Olympics have gone ahead as planned, although more than half the citizens of the host country believed they should be cancelled due to the pandemic. Even extensive safety measures couldn’t stop some athletes from withdrawing over fears of contagion.

I could be describing Tokyo but I’m talking about Rio 2016.

While five Olympics Games were cancelled during world wars I and II, 2020 was the first time the Olympics have ever been postponed but not first time the Games have had a brush with a pandemic.

The Summer Games were held in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1920 even though the Spanish flu hadn’t yet fully petered out, and the 1968 Olympics went ahead in Mexico City during the Hong Kong flu pandemic, which killed at least one million people worldwide.

The last time Japan hosted the Olympics, the Winter Games at Nagano in 1998, there was a flu epidemic that sickened at least 900,000 residents of the host country. Several top-ranked athletes were forced to withdraw from the competition or turned in subpar performances due to the virus, including Canadian figure skaters Elvis Stojko and Marie-Claude Savard-Gagnon.

Canadian figure skater Elvis Stojko blamed his second-place finish at the 1998 Nagano Olympics on a groin injury and a ‘brutal flu.’ (Andy Clark/Reuters)

After all the political, medical, and economic upheaval of the past five years, it’s easy to forget that the most recent Summer Olympics were also marred by concerns over a virus: Zika.

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The Zika virus was discovered in monkeys in 1947 but didn’t cause an outbreak in human beings until 2007. The disease is spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes or through body fluids and usually causes a mild illness, although in a small percentage of cases it can lead to neurological problems, like Guillain-Barré syndrome, neuropathy and myelitis.

Most Canadians first heard of Zika when it was identified in Brazil in 2015 after being imported from another country. Later that year, there was a spate of babies born with microcephaly, meaning they had unusually small heads and underdeveloped brains.

Microcephaly is considered rare; normally, only one in several thousand infants is born with the condition. In Brazil, in a span of just eight months, 1,600 newborns were diagnosed with the condition. 

Brazilian doctors quickly linked the surge in microcephaly cases with Zika, though it was years before researchers learned exactly how the virus causes the condition. When a pregnant woman is infected with Zika, the virus can pass into the body of the developing fetus, where it inhibits brain cell development.

In the midst of the outbreak, Brazil was slated to host its first Olympic Games, widely touted as a sort of “coming out party” for one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. After years of preparation and tens of billions of dollars spent, pressure to follow through with the event was high. 

Ana Beatriz, a baby girl with microcephaly, was born in Lagoa do Carro, Brazil, in 2016. Zika virus causes microcephaly by inhibiting the growth of brain cells in the fetus. (Percio Campos/EPA)

Despite declaring Zika a public health emergency, the World Health Organization didn’t stand in the way of the Games, deciding the virus posed minimal risk to athletes and other Olympic visitors. 

A small number of competitors pulled out over Zika concerns — including Australian Jason Day, the top-ranked golfer in the world at the time — but the Olympics kicked off in Rio de Janeiro as planned on Aug. 5, 2016.

Of the half a million visitors who descended on Rio for the Games, how many ultimately contracted the Zika virus? 

None. 

There were two reasons for that. 

Brazilian cleaning workers wave a banner reading ‘Out, Zika!’ in Portuguese on the second night of the carnival parade at Rio’s Sambadrome on Feb. 9, 2016. (YasuYoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty)

First, it was winter, and the mosquitoes that spread the disease were mostly dormant. There were no cases of Zika recorded in Rio de Janeiro in August or September that year at all. 

Second, Olympic athletes, journalists and tourists stayed in air-conditioned buildings with screened windows and indoor plumbing, in areas regularly treated with insecticides. National teams were provided with mosquito-repellent clothing, antiviral condoms, and cases upon cases of bug spray.

Brazilians with access to similar resources were never the ones most at risk of catching Zika. 

As one research paper put it, Zika is a scourge of urban slums. 

Twenty-two countries had active Zika transmission in 2016. (CBC)

The average Aedes aegypti mosquito — the type that spreads Zika — travels only 100 metres in its lifetime. In one of Brazil’s favela shantytowns, a 100-square-metre space can be home to more than 1,000 people, making the overcrowded neighbourhoods hotspots for Zika transmission. 

Apart from sheer population density, some favela homes lack windows and doors to keep the mosquitoes out, and, due to inadequate wastewater systems, gutters sometimes hold pools of stagnant water that are ideal breeding grounds for the insects.

After the Olympics ended and the athletes went home, women in Rio’s favelas were still being infected with the disease and giving birth to microcephalic infants.

Because COVID-19 is highly contagious from person to person, athletes and attendees at this year’s Olympic Games are at higher risk than they were in 2016. There have already been 193 Games-related infections, and at least three Olympics visitors have been hospitalized in Tokyo.

If there’s a lesson we can learn from the Rio Olympics, though, it’s that despite the hoopla of an event like the Olympic Games, the people who most need safeguarding in times of pandemic are almost never those in the limelight or on the podium.

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