By Lisa Miller, Ph.D., Editor, Global Sport Management News
Emory Perkins, Steven Smalling, Gregory Stevens, Guest Contributors
Is the Olympic leadership prepared to address health issues of the Zika virus and ongoing water safety concerns? Olympic athletes devote an enormous amount of time to perfecting their bodies and performances for the games. What is the history and background of the decision-making group, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), for controversial issues? The IOC was founded in 1921. This committee consists of a president, four vice presidents, and 10 other members. The members of the executive board are elected by the session through a secret ballot with a majority of votes cast for a four-year term (Olympic.org, 2016). The words “secret ballot” is not too favored by many countries. When the numerous cultural backgrounds are considered along with different currency procedures, different governance, and varying international laws, the complexity surmounts to a difficult level of leadership. A leading German newspaper, Süddeutschen Zeitung, expressed concern about the leadership structure by printing a column comparing the IOC to a mafia organization (Abrahamson, 2014). Many countries and organizations perceive the cost of leading the Olympic games to be far too expensive and difficult. Some perceive the IOC to lack trustworthiness with cost, social issues, and health concerns. Rome provided a prime example by withdrawing from the 2020 Olympic campaign due to the projected $12.5 billion price tag. Another example was the 1984 Olympics when the IOC was facing political and financial hardships.
The issue most pressing currently to the IOC is the criticism for the lack of response to the health issues in the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The water sports venues in Rio are polluted to levels that are unhealthy, according to media reports. A recent Associated Press investigation reported the waters to be polluted with raw sewage and high levels of viruses from human waste in every water sport venue. The report indicated that not a single venue can be considered safe for swimming or boating (Goldstein, 2016). Who is responsible for altruistically leading, monitoring, and taking action to protect the welfare of all the global athletes in top health condition? Overall, the IOC is responsible for the welfare and safety of all athletes competing in the games. In addition, they have been aware of Rio’s struggle with water pollution (Macur, 2009), and a proactive approach for improvement does not seem evident to the press or to the public. The IOC was notified of the findings by the Associated Press, but the IOC announced that they will not be running viral tests of the water. There are many who voiced concern that the 2016 Olympic water sports might be at risk due to the IOC’s lack of concern and motivation to resolve this important health issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) also encouraged the IOC to expand water testing procedures.
In addition, a concern emerged for the Zika virus that is spreading through Brazil. Zika is a virus that may be linked to a surge in severe birth defects. This places Olympic women of childbearing years at special risk. This health concern uniquely arose just as sponsors and hospitality providers fine-tune their plans for Rio. This is now an undetermined factor for companies that use the Olympics as a prime business development platform. The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) sent out a memo to athletes telling them what they knew about the Zika virus, but they did not provide enough comfort to some athletes who still voiced concerns. WHO director general, Margaret Chan, insisted that there should be no concern traveling to Rio, because they are taking precautions to prevent the virus from being a widespread problem. The main concern being that they do not know much about the virus or have a vaccine yet for players and travelers to the Olympics. Chan stated, “Zika is a mysterious and tricky virus. We are going into a long haul. We don’t know what surprises it will continue to deliver.”
Is enough being done to comfort concerns by athletes, coaches, and other Olympic constituents regarding these health issues? The Associated Press (2015) reported that one of the stipulations when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2016 Olympics to Rio was that they “clean up the city’s scenic waterways by improving sewage sanitation.” During a sailing test event in August of 2015, Olympic sailor Erik Heil was infected with the flesh-impacting bacteria MRSA. He concluded after being treated that he would wear a plastic covering until he could safely maneuver himself past the harmful contaminants closest to shore. However, the Associated Press further reported that “waterways are as rife with pathogens far offshore as they are nearer land,” because “raw sewage flows into them from rivers and storm drains.” Initial samples were taken from the shorelines where certain water sports would take place and other samples taken from places where athletes would enter the water, as well as places where tourists would visit during the Olympics.
In the media, the ESPN talk show Mike & Mike extended a challenge to any member of the IOC. They dared the IOC to swim in the water for one hour while ESPN cameramen filmed it to show support for clean water in Rio. Greenberg extended this challenge after the former CEO of World Sailing told the Associated Press that he was fired for insisting that the sport’s venue be moved from this bay area during the Rio Olympics due to polluted water. Overall, athletes need to know their basic health and well-being are proactively being protected by altruistic leaders who care about their health as they work to accomplish their Olympic dreams.
Abrahamson, A. The IOC’s Big Bid Problem (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.3wiresports.com/2014/05/05/iocs-big-bid-problem/
Associated Press (2015, December 2). Rio water pollution stretches beyond shoreline, AP tests show. Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/olympics/story/_/id/14270878/rio-olympics-water-polluted-far-offshore-new-testing-shows
Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro (2015, January 23). Rio admits it will fail to clean up ‘open sewer’ of 2016 sailing venue. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/jan/23/rio-pledge-cut-pollution-official
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