I Feel Terrible for the Olympic Athletes Who Are About to Live a Nightmare in Rio

Body parts in the water, stopped toilets, exposed wiring... Is this Rio hospitality?
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s.e. smith
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Body parts in the water, stopped toilets, exposed wiring... Is this Rio hospitality?

We've come this far, and there's no turning back: This Friday, the Opening Ceremony commences in Rio, and ready or not, the athletes are there.

Big emphasis on the "not," it turns out, and in all the discussion about OIympic readiness, I think sometimes we forget that these are real people attending the event of a lifetime, and that for them, the lack of readiness isn't just a listicle, but an actual nightmare they're living.

Which, if you think about it, is actually a bit insulting. The Olympics are supposed to be a time for athletes from all over the world to gather and compete with others who are performing at the peak of their sport, yes, but it's also supposed to be a period of international cooperation. Olympians from nations with unfriendly relationships will be (hopefully) setting things aside for the coming weeks, while the refugee team includes talented athletes made stateless by war and internal conflict.

Hosting the Olympics is a prestige event, despite the incredibly high cost and inevitable debt burden that comes with it. But it also comes with a serious responsibility, because you are inviting athletes, spectators, coaches, and officials from all over the world to come to your nation — and that means you want things to run as smoothly as possible.

It's one thing to invite some friends over for dinner and have a stopped toilet or a random power outage. It's another thing when you're inviting tens thousands of people over for an extended stay at what amounts to not just the biggest sporting event, but also the biggest diplomatic event, in the world.

Rosa Mota carrying the Olympic Torch.

Rosa Mota carrying the Olympic Torch.

For some sports, like gymnastics, you really only get one shot at the Olympics. Not qualifying can be devastating, but imagine qualifying, getting all the way there, and encountering an utter disaster, including traffic so horrific that you might miss your event because you'll be stuck in a massive line of cars. Already known for having terrible traffic, the city tried to prepare, but didn't get major public transit extensions and infrastructure improvements completed in time.

Completing Olympics-related infrastructure also isn't necessarily a good thing, as we've learned on multiple occasions. Last week, the major ramp associated with sailing events collapsed. If that sounds like déjà vu, I don't blame you, because in April, a section of the bike path built for Olympic events also collapsed, and it killed two people.

It's not just the infrastructure that may prove fatal for Olympians descending upon a city that is painfully obviously not ready for them. Remember the ongoing conversation about contaminated water that also on occasion includes body parts? Well, Olympians (and presumably everyone else) were merely warned to keep their mouths shut and their heads above water when swimming.

There are problems closer to home as well. The Australian team was robbed when they evacuated their building because of a small fire. If the thought of a small fire in a newly built building is concerning, it gets worse: The fire alarms had been deactivated. The Australians, you may recall, were the team who initially refused to move into their housing because they found blocked toilets, exposed wiring, and leaky pipes. Members of the team had already been robbed at gunpoint, an experience shared by a competitor from Spain.

Over half of the athletes' buildings hadn't passed safety checks before athletes moved in, and members of the media reported similar problems in their own accommodations. Hasty construction comes at a high price, and it appears to be a systemic problem across Rio. The US, Italian, and Dutch teams all paid private firms to finish their housing.

Meanwhile, Brazil still doesn't have a president, and the government is in a state of lurching uncertainty, which does not exactly inspire confidence. In a nation that might have been excited to host, though concerned about potential logistics, active irritation and antipathy are starting to arise, with protesters attacking the Olympic torch relay. (And this was after members of the military shot a threatened species during an Olympic event in front of horrified onlookers and media.)

Then there's the elephant, or Anopheles, in the room: Zika. 

Since news of the Zika outbreak went big in late 2015, the disease has cropped up in some 60 countries. We know that it's associated with congenital disabilities in children born to pregnant people infected with Zika, and the World Health Organization has recommended that pregnant people skip any potential trips to Brazil, and by extension, the Olympics. People with chronic illnesses have also been warned to stay away from areas with ongoing Zika issues because their compromised immune systems might be at risk. Some athletes are dropping out, citing Zika fears.

In adults, it's been linked to neurological problems of varying severity. Researchers are learning that it could cause chronic health problems that might not be readily apparent at first — it's possible that people with mild or asymptomatic cases now could later develop long-term health complications later, which is not a pleasant thought. 

WHO insisted that there was no reason to call off the Games, given that the virus is out of the box and attendees likely won't contribute to its global spread. They also noted that the Games fall in Brazil's winter, when mosquito populations will be lower, with a corresponding decreased risk of exposure. Even so, its travel recommendations for Brazil are pretty formidable and speak to some concern about risks for athletes, spectators, and staff — and, of course, to the 6.3 million residents of Rio. 

Though athletes may say they're afraid of Zika, statistically speaking, they should probably be more concerned about infectious organisms in the water and the risk of spreading an outbreak through the Olympic Village.

After this laundry list of problems that will likely affect the ability to compete safely, have a fun time in Rio, and in some cases even make it to events on time, the last issue athletes are facing probably sounds pretty petty: Pokémon Go hasn't been released in Brazil yet.

Photo: Save the Dream/Creative Commons