An Olympic-Sized Decision

Every four years, the nations of the world come together to celebrate sport and sportsmanship in the Olympic games.  The beauty and pageantry of the Olympics make it a quadrennial spectacle that is viewed by billions of people around the world.  Little-known sports gain international attention for a few days and unknown athletes burst into our living rooms with demonstrations of strength, speed, and endurance.  It’s all very exciting.  Enter controversy.

Olympic controversy has been abundant over the years.  Cold War tensions, doping scandals, unethical judging of events like figure skating and gymnastics are just a few of the scandals that have surrounded the Olympics over the years.  Host cities and countries have had their share of controversy also.  Sometimes Olympic cities seem ill prepared to host the games or the people from the host city wonder why the millions of dollars that are being spent on stadiums and hotels are not spent on education and health care.

The latest Olympic controversy centers on the Zika virus.  As word of some of the devastating effects of the virus rose, people began to ask if it is safe for 500,000 people from all over the world to come to Rio de Janeiro.  What if an Olympian (or any tourist) contracts the virus, then takes it back to his or her respective country?  Would there be disastrous implications?  Is this a risk that the international community should be willing to take?

Up to this point, the International Olympic Committee and the World Health Organization have resisted any attempts to postpone the Rio games.  However, bioethicist Arthur Caplan and a group of 150 experts have published a letter calling on WHO to act:  “WHO must revisit the question of Zika and postponing and/or moving the Games. We recommend that WHO convene an independent group to advise it and the IOC in a transparent, evidence-based process in which science, public health, and the spirit of sport come first. Given the public health and ethical consequences, not doing so is irresponsible.”

Now The Washington Post is reporting that Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, has asked “members of the Zika Emergency Committee to examine the risks of holding the Olympic Summer Games as currently scheduled.”  Given the gravity of the situation, these are reasonable steps.  Caution must be exercised and the risks must be accurately assessed.  The potential cost to human life is too great.

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