BY DAVID SHEININ
THE WASHINGTON POST
The United States Olympic Committee will provide its athletes with guidance and information about the Zika virus, as well as mosquito netting and insect repellent, ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, officials said. But the USOC will stop short of advising athletes or their families whether they should proceed to Brazil for the Summer Games, or stay back as a precaution.
“It’s going to be up to each individual athlete to make his or her decision,” Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC, said Monday at the opening session of the Team USA Media Summit. “We don’t want to be in the business of making health policy.”
Questions about Zika, the mysterious, mosquito-borne virus linked to a severe birth defect in babies born to infected mothers, dominated the first day of the three-day summit, with both athletes and USOC officials generally downplaying the risks.
“There are steps you can take to protect yourself,” said veteran swimmer Natalie Coughlin, 33, a 12-time Olympic medalist. “And while we are gathering information about this virus, I’m just going to continue to do what I’ve done in the past: Listen to the people who are the true scientists.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised women who are pregnant to avoid traveling to the Olympics, which begin Aug. 5, and cautioned women who are trying to become pregnant, and their male partners, to use caution if they attend. Although much about the virus remains unknown, scientists have identified cases in which it has been transmitted sexually.
The Team USA delegation for Rio is expected to include about 500 athletes, about half of whom will be women, as well as thousands of coaches, staff and family members. Despite the assurances, some athletes Monday indicated their families and friends still haven’t decided whether to go.
“We’re still a ways away,” swimmer Conor Dwyer, a gold medalist in 2012, told reporters at the summit. “I think we’ll know closer to the games whether people should or shouldn’t go.”
Last week, the USOC announced the formation of a medical advisory board to keep athletes informed about Zika, which is believed to be linked to the birth defect known as microcephaly, characterized by undersized brains and heads in newborns. Health officials hope the threat of Zika will be lessened by August, the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere.
While Blackmun said Monday he was not aware of any athlete who has decided to stay back because of Zika, Hope Solo, goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s soccer team, said last month she would not attend the Rio Games if they were being held then, as she was planning to start a family.
Other national federations have gone further than the USOC in warning its athletes about Zika. The New Zealand Olympic Committee, for example, has advised both “expectant mothers” and “those planning pregnancy” not to travel to Brazil.
“We would support any athlete or support staff member in their decision not to attend the Games if this were the case,” the NZOC said in a statement on its website.
Precise records aren’t kept on the number of Olympians who have competed while pregnant, but it happens regularly. At the 2012 London Games, for example, at least five did, including Malaysia’s Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi, who competed in women’s air rifle at 34 weeks pregnant.
Two of the women who competed in London while pregnant were Americans, though neither was aware of it at the time: beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh-Jennings and skeet- and trap-shooter Kim Rhode.
In a telephone interview, Rhode said she was “three or four weeks” pregnant during the London Games — where she won her fifth Olympic medal and third gold, dating from 1996 — and didn’t discover it until about a week after returning home. Her son, Carter, was born in May 2013.
Having both competed while pregnant and later given birth to a healthy baby, Rhode said she can empathize with women who might face a difficult choice ahead of Rio. But had her circumstances been different — had she known she was pregnant, with a threat such as Zika facing her — the choice, she said, would have been easy.
“I would not have gone,” she said. “It’s not even a tough call at all. We train for four years for the Olympics. That’s our lives. It’s a huge honor to be representing your country. But first and foremost is your family, and especially your little one . . . If anything, being a mother now makes you really feel for all the victims. It’s such a tragedy. When you have a little one, it makes you think more emotionally on those things.”