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Niyo: Michigan athletes weigh risks at Rio Olympics

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Nick Willis, who competes for New Zealand but lives in Ann Arbor, said he and his wife have “decided to delay adding to our family, for the meantime.” She will accompany him to Rio.

A group of more than 200 scientists and medical experts from around the world has called for this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to be moved or postponed.

The list of high-profile professional athletes considering skipping the world’s largest sporting event, citing health risks, includes the likes of tennis star Serena Williams, the NBA’s Pau Gasol and golfer Jason Day.

And with officials plagued by myriad other concerns with Rio’s opening ceremony just two months away — from political strife, pollution problems and construction delays in Brazil to widespread doping allegations and another emerging bid scandal for the International Olympic Committee — the headlines are getting harder and harder to ignore.

But for athletes like open-water swimmer Sean Ryan, a former Michigan All-American preparing for his first Olympics, all that angst is beyond his control.

“I mean, there should be some level of concern for everybody going and any health risk there is,” said Ryan, who just finished his master’s degree in engineering while training with the Club Wolverine elite team in Ann Arbor.

But, Ryan added, “I don’t need to be worrying about that kind of noise.”

The din keeps growing louder, though.

Chief among the concerns in the Olympic host country is the outbreak of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that has been linked to serious birth defects in babies born to infected mothers. The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus a “global health emergency” and advised pregnant women not to travel to affected areas, including Brazil, where the virus was first detected in May 2015 and where nearly 26,000 cases were reported in the first three months of 2016.

Yet WHO has stopped short of advocating more drastic measures, a stance that Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, called “deplorable, incompetent and dangerous” in an article published by the Harvard Public Health Review. Attaran has since co-written an open letter with scores of signatories sent to both WHO and the IOC demanding a “fresh evidence-based assessment of Zika and the Games, and its recommendations for travelers.” The authors say the threat of spreading the virus with an estimated 500,000 foreign visitors is both an “unnecessary” and “unethical” risk.

Officials from WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagree with that conclusion, noting that Brazil is just one of 60 countries to report Zika transmission and the Olympics will represent only a fraction of travel in and out of the country.

“Based on current assessment, canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus,” WHO said in a statement released last week.

Rio organizing chief Carlos Nuzman, in a presentation to the IOC executive board on Thursday, also noted there were no reported Zika cases resulting from 44 Olympic test events involving 7,000 athletes and 8,000 volunteers.

All of this, of course, leaves the athletes in limbo. USA Swimming moved a pre-Olympic training camp from Puerto Rico, where there have been more than 1,000 confirmed Zika cases in the last six months, to Atlanta as a precautionary measure. And as U.S. women’s soccer goalie Hope Solo said in a recent CNBC interview, “I strongly believe that no athlete should be put into this position — to decide between your Olympic dreams and your own health.”

For many, including Nick Willis, a four-time Olympian and former NCAA track champion at Michigan, the decision affects more than just their own health. Last week, cyclist Tejay Van Garderen announced he was withdrawing from the U.S. Olympic team to avoid risking infection, with his pregnant wife due in October.

Willis, who competes for his native New Zealand but lives in Ann Arbor, travels with his wife, Sierra, to all his major races, and she’ll be staying with him in the athletes’ village in Rio as his federation-appointed coach.

“The option of her not coming isn’t an option, if I want to perform at my best,” said Willis, who won a silver medal in the men’s 1,500 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Willis, discussing the issue after a workout at the UM track last weekend, says he won’t get caught up in “the sensationalistic headlines” as he hits the road for pre-Olympic Grand Prix races in Europe this month.

“We’ve tried to educate ourselves as best as possible, by following the actual CDC reports,” Willis said, adding that if there are any “severe measures” that need to be taken this summer “we would consider those.”

But given what is known about the virus, they are taking precautions. WHO recommends that partners abstain or practice safe sex for up to six months after returning from Zika-affected areas.

Pollution may be an issue in Rio for former University of Michigan swimmer Sean Ryan.

“So the main step for us is we’ve decided to delay adding to our family, for the meantime,” Willis said, whose son, Lachlan — he’ll turn 3 next month — will stay home with Sierra’s parents in Michigan this summer.

Ryan, who’ll turn 24 in August, doesn’t have those immediate family concerns. But a more pertinent issue for him in Brazil may be the pollution, as Rio’s contaminated waterways remain a problem, with untreated sewage flowing into Guanabara Bay, site of Olympic sailing events.

An Associated Press investigation last summer found dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria in the bay, but the bacterial levels at Copacabana Beach, where Ryan will compete, fell in the acceptable range. He says has received similar updates recently from USA Swimming officials.

Still, during a visit to Copacabana this winter, Ryan decided not to dive in.

“It had been raining for 2 1/2 days straight and I figured all the runoff from the city probably wasn’t very good to swim around in,” said Ryan, one of two U.S. men who will compete in the 10-kilometer swim in Rio. “I’m trying not to worry about it, because there’s nothing I can do to fix it. I need to be prepared to swim as fast as I can.”

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The Rio Games

When: Aug. 5-21

Athletes: More than 10,500 athletes from 206 different countries will compete. There are 28 sports, including rugby and golf for the first time.

Site: There are 33 venues in Rio de Janeiro and five other venues in Sau Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Brasilia and Manaus.

TV: NBC is the host network, and because Rio is only one hour ahead, most events will be broadcast live.