WASHINGTON — As the fallout from the FIFA scandal continues to unravel, it can be easy to overlook the second-most corrupt sports body of the last few decades, the International Olympic Committee. Because while the IOC may no longer have the kinds of comically over-the-top corruption anymore, it is facing perhaps its biggest moral test this summer, and so far it has yet to show any inkling that it will pass.
It has been 18 years since the bribery scandal leading into the 2002 Winter Olympics began to come to light. Juan Antonio Samaranch is long departed from the role of “His Excellency,” but the legacy of his corruption lives on, as the 2020 games in Tokyo are already tainted with accusations of bribery. But before we can get to Japan in four years, there’s the matter of this summer’s impending boondoggle in Rio.
Brazil has problems. Not just the types of problems that might hamper quality of life or competition, like the smog in Beijing did in 2008; real, potentially devastating problems that could have dire consequences on the thousands of athletes visiting the country and potentially on the rest of the world.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, let’s get you up to speed on all of the potential disasters facing the 2016 Summer Games.
The first major concern is the quality of the water in which some of the athletes will compete. Just how bad is the water? Brazil promised it would be cleaned up in time for the games, but last summer, a German sailor practicing at an Olympic test event off the Rio shores landed in the hospital with a MRSA infection. At the time, the AP reported that disease-causing virus levels, linked to human waste in the water, were up to 1.7 million times above what would already be an alarming level.
In the past few months, a massive bribery scandal that has been under investigation for several years has been expanded to include multibillion dollar Olympic contracts. Rio’s mayor has promised all the venues will be completed in time, but the collapse of a recently constructed bike bridge, which killed two, and the revelation that nearly a dozen construction workers have died has put pressure on officials to protect workers better, just as they are scrambling to complete projects.
And then, of course, there’s Zika.
The world medical community is still scrambling to get a better understanding of just how serious the virus may be, but we know it can cause Guillain-Barre, a temporary paralysis, as well as microcephaly in unborn children, a physical shrinking of the head and brain damage. That has caused a top US cyclist and a German golfer to withdraw from the games, while others have expressed serious reservations.
Also, we’ve learned Zika can be spread sexually, and let’s just say the Olympic Village has something of a … reputation. There were 150,000 condoms distributed in London in 2012, a number expected to triple this year. And just last week, it was reported that the virus may be transmitted by oral sex, or even kissing.
Much more disconcerting than the risk to the athletes alone is the fact that more than 10,000 athletes, along with their various training and coaching staff, will then be returning to 207 countries around the globe, some of them likely infected with the virus.
As a result, a group of global health specialists recently called on the Olympics to be canceled, as they presented a potential threat of a pandemic. So far, the World Health Organization has not sounded such an alarm, and the IOC has been happy to defer to them, essentially washing its hands of any responsibility by claiming to follow the experts. But on Friday, the WHO turned course, after lawmakers pushed them to investigate further. An emergency meeting is scheduled for this week.
But will it be enough to actually stop the games from taking place? Almost certainly not. Just as FIFA has a World Cup planned in Qatar in 2022, thanks to promises like an air conditioning technology that hasn’t been invented yet, Rio’s problems aren’t enough to stop the people in charge — the ones making all the money — from pulling the plug.
The Olympics are a massive financial investment. The 2012 London Games’ final price tag ran nearly $15 billion, after an initial bid cost of $5 billion. Rio’s estimated costs are already $9.8 billion, a number that figures to continue to rise, amid a countrywide recession. There are lots of people with lots of money invested into making sure the games actually happen, including the current IOC president (who, despite serving in what is considered a volunteer position, receives an annual allowance of $242,000). Would you want to be the leader who watched an Olympics canceled on your watch? It becomes easy to see why those invested would look past even incredibly serious potential issues to preserve their own piece of the pie.
As we’ve learned from countless other examples across all walks of society, when institutions become too big to fail, they cease to be accountable to anything but themselves. The Olympics put a global spotlight on their host city, but never in recent history has such illumination turned up so many shadows. The ubiquity of knowledge about these problems is no doubt made more accessible to the public by the proliferation of the internet, but Rio’s threats are greater than those we’ve seen in quite some time, possibly ever.
If Rio isn’t ready to provide water that won’t endanger athletes and infrastructure that is safe, that is bad enough. But if Zika is really as dangerous a threat as some believe, the decision on whether to pull the plug can’t be left to those who have ignored the warning signs all along, those who have major incentive to do anything they can to make sure the show goes on.