As Rio de Janeiro remains in the midst of a Zika virus outbreak, many athletes have been left to decide whether having a chance for Olympic glory is worth risking a little-understood virus that has swept parts of the globe.
Brazil has been the epicenter of the Zika virus outbreak that has hit approximately 60 countries. The mosquito-borne virus has been linked to birth defects and other serious illnesses. New research published Wednesday found that the infection of pregnant women can cause cell death in brain tissue, abnormal calcium deposits and physical deformities.
“I’m afraid the more we learn the nastier the Zika virus is,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News.
The health risks associated with the virus, along with the nation’s economic and political instability, a spate of recent crimes against athletes training in Rio and its polluted waters have left many athletes reconsidering their participation in the 2016 Games.
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With a little over one month left before the Games begin, here are the athletes who have already opted out.
Tejay van Garderen
In June, American cyclist Tejay van Garderen became the first U.S. athlete to withdraw his name from Olympic consideration due to concerns about the virus and the potential effects it could have on his pregnant wife.
“Although the risks associated with the Zika virus can be minimal and precautions can be taken, my wife Jessica is pregnant, and I don’t want to risk bringing anything back that could potentially have an effect,” he said at the time.
Seven of the World’s Top Golfers
Seven major golf champions have withdrawn from participating in Rio due to concerns about Zika and other conflicts. Although golf is making a return to the Games for the first time since 1904, many of its stars – including Jason Day, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Vijay Singh – will not be participating.
“While it has always been a major goal to compete in the Olympics on behalf of my country, playing golf cannot take precedent over the safety of our family,” Jason Day wrote on Twitter. “I will not place them at risk.”
Jordan Spieth, the number 2 golfer in the world, remains undecided, according to the Telegraph.
Stephen Curry and LeBron James
Fresh off of a devastating game 7 loss in the NBA Championships, NBA star Stephen Curry also decided to opt out of consideration for the games. Curry cited the need to recover from injuries as his reason for withdrawing, and said Zika “didn’t have a bearing” on his decision – but “I followed the reports and kind of got educated on that.”
Meanwhile, NBA Finals MVP James, 31, also opted out of the Games, explaining that “I could use the rest.” James has already participated in three Olympic Games, earning two gold medals and one bronze.
Participants Staying Vigilant
Meanwhile, others have chosen to attend the Olympic Games, but have spoken out about their concerns and the extra precautions they’ll take.
Jordan Speraw, the coach of the U.S. men’s volleyball team, has said he will freeze his sperm before traveling to Rio, and Spanish basketball player Pau Gasol has said that he may do the same, reports The New York Times.
U.S. women’s soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo has also voiced her concerns about attending the games. “I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child,” Solo, 34, said in February. “I don’t know when that day will come for Jerramy and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby. No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma.”
In May, Solo announced that she would “begrudgingly” play in the Games, noting that she was “not sure I’m even going to be leaving the hotel room, outside of practice.”
Four-time Olympic gold medalist Serena Williams has said that she is “not taking Zika lightly” as she prepares to head to the games in Rio. “Especially being older, I am definitely going everywhere protected. I’m protecting myself,” Williams, 30, said.
British heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill, Romanian tennis player Simona Halep, and British longjumper Greg Rutherford have also voiced their concerns about the virus, according to the Telegraph.
South Korea’s team has announced that it will wear “Zika-proof” uniforms featuring blazers and pants that have been treated with mosquito repellent.
Despite widespread concern, the World Health Organization has confirmed that the 2016 Olympics will not affect the spread of the Zika virus as much as previously anticipated. The agency predicted that the Zika risk in the city will drop significantly in August, which occurs during South America’s winter – a period when fewer mosquitos are active.
However, the WHO has advised pregnant women not to travel to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission, including Rio de Janeiro. The organization also advised the sexual partners of pregnant women returning from areas where the virus is circulating “to practise safer sex or abstain throughout the pregnancy.”
Twenty-six thousand cases of the Zika virus have been reported in Rio in 2016. However, reported cases have dropped as temperatures have cooled, with only 702 confirmed cases in May.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama met with the heads of the Health and Human Services Department, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to discuss Zika, reports Reuters. Afterwards, he urged Congress to end its deadlock and provide crucial funding to combat the virus.
“It is absolutely critical for the United States government, working in concert with other governments in the hemisphere, to be pushing hard right now to get this situation under control,” Obama said.
He also said mosquitoes who carry Zika are believed to be in the country, but there have not yet been any reported cases of transmission within the continental U.S.