In August, Brazil expects to host 500,000 visitors at the Rio 2016 games. But instead of anticipating a global sports carnival in the heart of South America's most exciting city, international health organizations and concerned athletes are obsessed with one word: Zika.
The mosquito-borne virus, linked to thousands of heartbreaking cases of microcephaly in Brazil, has been declared a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" by the World Health Organization. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued travel advisories for more than 25 countries including Brazil, recommending that pregnant women — or women planning to get pregnant soon — postpone traveling to Zika-affected areas.
Because of this, some people are calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to cancel the Olympic Games. Writing in Forbes, New York University professors Arthur Caplan and Lee Igel said that the current Zika containment plan, spraying for mosquitos at Olympic venues, a "risky — maybe even crazy — approach."
"By the time the Games roll around, many fans aren't likely to attend," the authors say. "The media will report on nothing but mosquitos and birth defects, more than a few athletes and coaching staffs will balk at competing in Rio, and Brazil will be sinking further into debt trying to battle an epidemic while paying for the Games. The IOC needs to either move the Games, postpone them, or cancel them. Prevention is the best course in the face of a serious threat to humanity."
But Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada emphatically denied that the option is even on the table. "This has never been mentioned. No way," Andrada told the Associated Press . "It's impossible to do that."
Impossible? Let's see.
It's unlikely that Brazil would decide to cancel anything. The Rio 2016 Olympics have already cost the country between $10 billion and $20 billion, depending on the numbers you want to believe. The official budget is $13.2 billion, but sources close to the project — which includes the construction of 10 brand new sporting venues and massive upgrades to Rio's transportation infrastructure — put the number closer to $20 billion.
The only way for Brazil to recoup the costs of hosting the Olympics is to cash in on foreign tourists. Not only does Brazil expect a flood of tourists for the games themselves, but hopes that the festive, welcoming image promoted throughout the Olympics will raise the nation's status as an attractive tourist destination for years to come. (Unfortunately, that hasn't happened in the two years since the 2014 Brazilian World Cup.)
But what about the IOC? Couldn't it intervene and kill the games?
"If they tried, there would be massive legal action on behalf of Rio and Brazil against the IOC," says Andrew Zimbalist, economics professor at Smith College and author of "Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup". "Unless the Zika virus takes on a whole new dimension that nobody has foreseen, I don't see that happening."
Calling off the Olympics would mean stopping half-finished buildings in their tracks, canceling contracts and refunding tourists their admission ticket fees, among many other things. It's just not likely to happen.
For a glimpse of the furious backlash that would be triggered by canceling Olympic construction contracts, just look at what happened in January. The Rio city government scrapped a deal with the construction consortium tasked with building the Olympic tennis stadium (it was 90 percent complete), citing delays and breach of contract. Not only is the consortium suing the Rio government, but laid-off construction workers protested outside the unfinished venue and may have lit fire to a shipping container.
The Olympics have been canceled five times in the 122-year history of the modern games, but never because of a public health concern. The previous five canceled games (1916 summer games, 1940 summer and winter games, and 1944 summer and winter games) were scrapped because of war. And in most cases, the games were canceled long before any serious construction was underway, not six months before the opening ceremony. Germany jumped the gun and built an Olympic stadium in 1913 for the 1916 games, but it was ultimately torn down and replaced with a new one for the 1936 Berlin games.
In truth, there's simply no comparing the games of yesteryear with the massive spectacle and outlandish costs of today's Olympics. The 1948 London Olympics cost the city, still lifting itself from the rubble of World War II, a modest £732,268, or about $30 million in 2013 dollars. To compare, the 2012 London Olympics carried a $9 billion price tag.
"A lot of money has been put into this; the athletes, the infrastructure," Olympic historian David Wallechinsky told the Associated Press in early February. "It's pretty late to move the games so I think they'll go forward."