Zika, water quality, violent crime - the perils of Rio for New Zealand's athletes

Chef de mission Rob Waddell says the Brazilian organisers have taken precautions to mitigate the risk of street crime.
GETTY IMAGES

Chef de mission Rob Waddell says the Brazilian organisers have taken precautions to mitigate the risk of street crime.

Leave your credit card and flash watch at home, lather up on Deet, and if you're feeling frisky, please use a condom. These are just a few of the survival tips being given to Kiwi athletes heading to next month's Olympics.

The health and safety challenges in Rio de Janeiro are incomparable to most past Olympic hosts: violent crime is a daily occurrence, a trip to the beach can leave you violently ill, not to mention the global panic over mosquito-borne Zika.

Within the "Olympic bubble", organisers are pulling out all the stops to ensure the safety of athletes, officials and spectators.

Pollution in Rio's Guanabara Bay, where events are being held at this year's Olympic Games, will present a risk for ...
RICARDO MORAES/REUTERS

Pollution in Rio's Guanabara Bay, where events are being held at this year's Olympic Games, will present a risk for sailors and triathletes.

But beyond the walls of the Olympic Village and venues, the city is in a state of crisis: its own governor says the Games have the potential to be a "big failure" due to a lack of public security.

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That calls for special precautions for the Kiwi team, over and above past Olympic efforts. The New Zealand Olympic Committee is heading to Rio with 350 athletes and staff, a small team of police officers, hundreds of mosquito nets, and firm restrictions on the team's movements.

More than 80,000 police, security guards and soldiers will be on duty in Rio.
FABRIZIO BENSCH/REUTERS

More than 80,000 police, security guards and soldiers will be on duty in Rio.

Oh, and boxes of condoms, just in case.

AN UNPREDICTABLE CITY

New Zealand's chef de mission Rob Waddell is no stranger to the Olympics, having rowed in two Games, winning gold at Sydney in 2000.

But this year is his first time in charge, in a host city facing extraordinary challenges: Brazil's president faces an impeachment trial at the same time as the Games take place, financially-stricken Rio de Janeiro state has declared a "state of calamity", and the city's security situation – or lack thereof – is, at best, unpredictable.

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In recent weeks, unpaid police officers have protested in Rio's international airport, telling visitors they won't be safe during the Olympics, amid bloody shootouts between gangs and police, high-profile rapes, gunpoint robberies of Olympic athletes, and the grisly discovery of mutilated body parts, metres from the Olympic beach volleyball stadium.

For this year's Games, all countries' teams are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.

"Rio being quite a foreign environment to what we're used to, and obviously different to London, we have looked to understand that in depth," Waddell says.

Brazil's been accused of being blasé about the terrorist threat to the Games, but recent attacks in Paris, Brussels and Orlando have led seen its counterterrorism measures scaled up. Brazil's elite police have received training from French counterparts, and the United States, United Kingdom, Belgium and France will help Brazil run a Counterterrorism Centre throughout the Games.

"Rest assured, we are using the most modern techniques for responding to any terrorist attempt," Minister of Justice Alexandre de Moraes told media, at an event marking one month till the Games.

"[Terrorism] is not a probability, but it is a possibility that happens worldwide. We work as if there were a probability."

He adds that the same security measures will be in place in five other Brazilian cities, where the Olympic football matches will be held – making use of under-utilised stadiums constructed for the 2014 Fifa World Cup.

Yet there's already been one security hiccup: a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, living in Uruguay, is believed to have slipped into Brazil, apparently using a fake ID. Brazilian police have so far been unable to track him down, with airlines alerted to keep a watch out.

Security at the athletes' village is extremely tight: not a soul or their bag can enter without passing through screening. Rio 2016 won't divulge which of the 31 high-rise towers particular teams are staying in (the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972 is clearly still fresh).

DOWN ON THE STREET

But the main concern for the Kiwi team is much smaller than Islamic State. It's the insidious street crime, often involving knives or guns, that pervades Rio's tourist suburbs.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns of "express kidnappings", where a victim is taken to an ATM and made to withdraw money, while the risk of carjackings at intersections is so great, drivers are allowed to run red lights overnight.

"Rio is a city like many big cities in the world, has got some risk around street crime, but we also know that they are taking some strong measures in that space to bring in support to reduce that," Waddell says.

During the Games, 80,000 police, security guards and soldiers will pound the streets – more than double the number in London four years ago. But the number of elite police has been slashed in half from 9000 – something Rio's security secretary José Mariano Beltrame has warned "is going to compromise the strategic security plan for the Olympics". 

Brazil's troops will be joined by about 250 police from 55 countries, forming a Centre for International Police Cooperation to share information about foreigners entering the country, and investigate any crimes they may be involved in during the Olympic period.

New Zealand police will send five officers to Rio to act as "liaison officers" for the Kiwi team. In recent times, they've carried out three reconnaissance missions, reporting back on potential risks to athletes – the details of which they wouldn't be drawn on. Two officers will remain for the Paralympics.

One of the key security concerns is for the sailing team, who will stay near their venue, some 40 kilometres away from the athletes' village. Triathletes, too, may stay outside of the village the night before competing, due to the travel distance, Waddell says.

While the sailors have trained in Rio on and off for years without running into trouble, the recent gunpoint robberies of their Australian and Spanish competitors have underscored the need for heightened awareness safety measures.

Yachting NZ chief executive David Abercrombie says while he expects the Games to be "a wonderful experience", Rio is "a big city that poses some risk to visitors".

The team was working with NZOC and NZ Police on "strategies to do everything we can to ensure the safety and security of our athletes and wider team while they are in Rio".

Waddell says the team's given "commonsense" advice to athletes and supporters: "If you are ever in a compromised situation, to hand over whatever you have and not try to resist it … Do make sure you're not wearing your jewellery and your flash watch as well."

They'll also be urged to carry cash, instead of credit cards: "You might have something small on you which would allow the offender to move on".

Waddell says many athletes will "inevitably" have a desire to visit the city's famous tourist sights – like the Christ the Redeemer statue, and the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema – and will be allowed to "if time permits".

But during both the Olympics and Paralympics, athletes' movements will be severely restricted, with a "specific process to gain consent" to leave the village for any reason other than competition.

That includes consent from their sport's leader, team management, including the chef de mission, and from the Kiwi police, Paralympics NZ explained.

And while Australia's banned its athletes from visiting the city's favelas, deeming them too dangerous, the Kiwi athletes are encouraged to visit the community of Mangueira, where the NZOC launched a partnership earlier this year, donating sport equipment and promising the stars and their coaches would swing by to teach the local kids how to play their sports.

"We've now got a bit of a roster in place with people that are wanting to go and visit that… [We] are working with the local government authorities as well as our own representatives to make sure that our athletes can enjoy that, give something back, and share the spirit of the Olympics with a group of kids that wouldn't otherwise get to do that."

GAMBLING WITH HEALTH

Another risk that sets Rio apart from London and Beijing is its potential to make athletes very, very sick.

And while it's Zika that's stolen recent headlines, after being linked to a birth defect causing brain damage in Brazilian babies, the virus pales in comparison to Rio's other big health risk: its water.

In heavily polluted Guanabara Bay, sailors, triathletes and marathon swimmers – not to mention ordinary beachgoers – run the risk of serious gastro and skin infections, including a recently-discovered superbug at the city's tourist beaches. The lagoon, where rowing and canoeing events will be held, is also severely contaminated.

Tests have revealed dangerous high levels of bacteria and viruses in both waterways – from tonnes of raw sewage, piles of trash, and miscellaneous objects, like clothing, household furniture, and even the odd body part. High Performance Sport NZ has carried out its own testing – a first – which it uses as a benchmark to measure Rio's monthly water-quality reports.

Experts say swallowing just a few teaspoon of water– easy for a splashing swimmer, or a sailor who accidentally goes overboard – could make an athlete seriously ill.

"As a former rower, I used to chuck my water bottle at the bottom of the boat and off I'd go. You wouldn't do that in Rio," Waddell says.

When the city won the hosting rights, it promised to treat 80 per cent of raw sewage in the bay by Games time. It's long since abandoned that pledge – the current figure is closer to 50 per cent.

But Rio 2016 president Carlos Nuzman shrugs off the failure to deliver, saying no country follows through on all its bid-time promises. "I will ask you to give me one example of one city that did this."

Already, there have been cases of athlete illness: a German sailor suffered a serious skin infection; an American junior rowing team came down with gastro. Both blamed the water. However, as the water meets World Health Organisation standards – which don't require virus testing – Rio 2016 can fairly maintain the water is safe.

Like other teams, Kiwi athletes will avoid the dirty water before their events, so any symptoms won't be felt till several days after the medal ceremony.

However, Waddell says athletes haven't been consumed with worry.

"The feedback we've had from athletes is that it (the water quality) is something that's the same for everyone – you are all competing in a similar environment.

"Probably, we're talking most specifically about sailing here, and my observation's been that they respect the risk that's there and they're doing everything they can to mitigate that, and they're just quietly getting on with the job."

Adds Abercrombie: "We have comprehensive team protocols, tested over the past couple of years, that mitigate against the risks we know to exist in Rio. It is important that our athletes can remain focused on preparation and performance."

The bigger concern for NZOC is ensuring the field of play of fair – meaning no tangible obstacles in an athlete's path. Before and during the Games, Rio 2016 will deploy eco-boats and eco-barriers to stop trash from floating into the competition zones.

Says Waddell: "The water quality might not be perfect – it's a long way from it – but they are actually making sure that the boats should be able to sail through the water without anything wrapping around or causing anything which would be unfair."

ZIKA FEARS

But over and above other risks, it's Zika that's got the world worried – unnecessarily, say organisers, as modelling suggests that only one of the 500,000 Olympics-goers will contract the virus.

Although its symptoms are usually mild, its likely impact on an elite athlete's performance – and the risk it poses to pregnant women – mean teams, including the NZOC, are taking it "very seriously".

More than a dozen male golfers have pulled out of the Games, citing "Zika fears". 

Almost no other sportspeople have dropped out, and Waddell doesn't expect any New Zealanders to do so, although two support staff pulled out "several months ago".

He says the NZOC has shared health and prevention advice "very openly and directly" with athletes and support staff, including on preventing sexual transmission of Zika.

"Quite simply, you can get sick at a pinnacle event, which is a horrible thing," Waddell says.

Inside the Olympic Village, every Kiwi bedroom has been fumigated, and has a plug-in repellent. Each athlete will have a mosquito net over their bed and their own bottle of Bushman's Deet repellent. Windows will be kept shut, with aircon used in its place.

And on the transmission front, Waddell adds, "obviously, we have contraception available if people need it."

 - Stuff

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