Q: A contagious disease, the threat of violence, insanitary conditions, a constitutional crisis, and now … a doping crisis! All in a day’s work for the organizers of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, eh?
A: Yes: every summer Olympics has its share of problems in the lead-up to the tournament, but they’re usually about getting the stadiums built in time, or completing the transport links. For Rio, these are minor problems: they have much more serious crises to avert. Do you want me to go through them?
Q: Sure. Start with the public health cataclysm.
A: Cataclysm might be overstating it a bit, but the Zika virus certainly has the potential to develop into a global pandemic. Zika is the virus spread by mosquitoes — those pesky little long-legged flies with a taste for human blood. Aedes aegypti is the name of a species of mozzie that carries this Zika virus and if they bite a pregnant woman her baby could develop a devastating birth defect. This has already happened in Rio. The danger is that, if some of the expected 500,000 visitors to the Olympics get bitten, then return home, then the virus goes with them. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says the mosquito type has been recently reported in Madeira, the Netherlands and the north-eastern Black Sea coast. You can bet that, after the Olympics, it will be many, many other places too.
Q: So this is potentially a huge public health risk. Who in their right mind would go to a part of the world where this kind of mosquito thrives?
A: The Olympics has a great pulling power and not only for audiences. Athletes train for four years and, when they finally get the chance to compete in the most prestigious tournament in the world, they will run a cost-benefit calculation through their mind and decide it’s a risk worth taking.
Q: Professor Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa has recently written a warning in of the Harvard Public Health Review in which he calls for a complete postponement or even cancellation of the Olympics. He thinks it’s that serious.
A: And I find his arguments compelling. I was in a discussion with him recently and agree with his findings. But I don’t think the Olympic organizers will listen. As always, money overpowers everything, including public health considerations.
Q: How much money are we talking about?
A: Well let’s start with the sponsors’ money. The International Olympic Committee , or just IOC for short, has about 30 global corporations in its team of commercial “partners,” as it likes to call them. These include Samsung, Visa, Omega as well as the ever-present pair, Coca-Cola and McDonalds.They pay for the rights to use the Olympic rings logo, advertise themselves as Olympic sponsors and generally associate themselves with the Olympic brand. Because of the different levels and lengths of contracts, I can only estimate the value of sponsorships for this particular tournament, but I don’t think $1 billion would be wide of the mark. And I know we tend to use the word billion as we used million a decade ago. But remember: a billion is a thousand times more than a million.
Q: A thousand million American dollars? That’s £691,488,810. Serious money!
A: Actually, it gets more serious. The media deals are enormously complex because they’re often structured over several Olympic cycles and there are subcontractors who buy the broadcast rights to whole territories and then sell on to individual broadcasters. The IOC has one particularly lucrative contract with NBC television worth $7.5 billion and which stretches to 2032. But for this single Olympic games, the overall value of media contracts is, I’d say, slightly north of $4.1 billion.
Q: Why so much?
A: Advertising. The 2012 London Olympics was broadcast to 115 different countries, reaching an audience of 3.8 billion homes. That’s a formidable reach and very, very few televised events can claim such a fantastic demographic. Football’s World Cup is one of them, of course. So, if you’re an advertiser and you want to show your products to the biggest possible consumer market, then you advertise during the Olympics. And tv and radio companies charge you more. So they make money. The IOC charge a lot in the confident expectation that broadcasters will cough up, secure in the knowledge that they can charge advertisers a premium. The USA’s NBC charges about $100,000 per 30-seconds and has already taken $1 billion in advertising spots. The rate is dwarfed by those attached to some sporting events, like the Super Bowl, but, of course the Olympics lasts over two weeks. So a cancellation at this late stage would create pandemonium for both sponsors and broadcaster.
Q: But surely the huge corporations tied up with the Olympics are insured against a cancellation or some other kind of catastrophe.
A: Definitely. But imagine the brand damage: the Olympics is a popular portal for advertising and marketing because of its connotations: health, wholesomeness, purity, virtue — squeaky-cleanliness. Public health disasters are not part of the brand profile.
Q: Which brings me to the other potential problems. I was reading the Brazilian footballer Rivaldo had warned prospective travellers to stay away from Rio. He thinks they will be exposing themselves to violence.
A: I’m always skeptical about these kinds of warnings. Every big city in the world carries its own menace: cities are, almost by definition, places where rich and poor live side-by-side. Well, perhaps not side-by-side: there are affluent and impoverished areas of most cities. Rio is no different. Of course, there are dangerous parts and most clued-up travellers will give them a wide berth. All the same, when someone like Rivaldo reckons Brazil is getting “more ugly,” I guess we should take notice. You might expect Brazilian athletes to support the Games and encourage fans from everywhere to flock to Rio. He’s warning them off. Add to this the report that Rio’s Olympic waterways are rife with pathogens — bacteria that can cause disease — and that corruption is rife and you come up with the picture of a country that is not quite fit-for-purpose as an Olympic host. Matter of fact, Rio and the Olympics makes Quatar and football’s World Cup look like a match made in heaven!
Q: Almost inevitably there’s been an ominous doping scandal, the difference this time being that this one has arrived before rather than during or after the Games.
A: Let me recap: Russia is already suspended from the Olympics and it will petition to have its suspension lifted before the start. It’s case is now being considered. Kenya has also been mentioned, though nothing has materialized thus far. Russia is known to have had a state-sponsored doping programme. Kenya was recently declared “non-compliant” with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules. It would be a major blow if either or both nations were excluded from the Games for drugs violations. Russia was fourth in the 2012 medals table and Kenya is the preeminent force in middle and longdistance running. And it gets worse: dozens of athletes expecting to compete in Rio de Janeiro could be barred from the Games. The International Olympic Committee announced that it had retested urine samples taken at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and would retest more from the 2012 tournament. The intention is presumably to strip those who tested positive of their medals and, if they planned to compete in Brazil, ban them.
Q: Hang on, I’m not quite getting this. The athletes at Beijing and London were tested in 2008 and 2012 respectively and, we presume, came out clean and so kept their medals. How can they testers change their minds now and declare them “cheats”? It seems to go against the entire ethos of sports. I mean, there’s a contest, an outcome and winners are declared. OK, we know dopetesting can take a few days. But eight years? This means that every single medallist at Rio keeps the medal conditionally and, if at some future unspecified time, their sample shows up a banned substance, their medal could be annulled.
A: That’s it. Every result at Rio will be provisional. And it will remain provisional for ever. The testing equipment available now will detect some substances. But athletes are intelligent enough to realize that, if they intend to enhance their athletic performance, they don’t want to use substances that will be detected. That’s why they use designer drugs, these being drugs that are synthetically made to escape detection. It’s possible that at some point in the future, the testers will catch up — as they apparently have with some of the substances used in 2008 and 2012 — but, there’s also a better-than-even chance that they’ll never devise tests sophisticated enough to catch them.
Q: All the same, this has to be an unsatisfactory state of affairs. It means that the 78,838 fans at the Estádio do Maracanã (pictured above) plus the 3 billion+ tv audiences will be watching events in which the results will be inconclusive and always subject to change.
A: Correct. But try to think of the Olympic Games less as a sporting tournament and more of a spectacular exhibition — a showcase for the world’s seventh biggest economy. Between August 5-21, there will be plenty of competition, but there’ll also be the grand opening and closing ceremonies and two-and-a-half weeks of the most intensive marketing imaginable. The Chariots of Fire bolted long ago.