By Steve Keating
OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) – Even as gun battles rage in Rio de Janeiro slums, mutilated bodies wash up on beaches and police and fireman protest, the USOC on Thursday declared the 2016 Olympics will be the safest place in the world for athletes once the Games begin.
Following their final board meeting before the Olympics open on Aug. 5, United States Olympic Committee (USOC) leaders Scott Blackmun and Larry Probst downplayed the security risks and Zika threat that have plagued the run-up to the first Summer Games in South America.
While the Olympic city grapples with rising crime, a recession and exhausted state finances that could compromise security plans, the USOC gave preparations a thumbs-up, saying they were confident the Games would be safe and successful.
“I guess what I would say is that I am bringing my family down there,” Blackmun, the USOC chief executive officer, told reporters.
“I feel like the safest place in the world is going to be the village and the competition venues so I think our athletes will be among the safest people in Rio because of all the security around them.
“It is a complicated world and there is risk associated with everything but … we feel really good about Rio’s preparation. There is risk associated with any Games, whether it is terrorism, or crime or transportation.”
While every Olympics presents unique problems, Rio has certainly had more than its share of challenges from the threat of a dangerous drug-resistant “super bacteria” in the waters that will host open water swimming, canoe and kayak events to transportation chaos and rampant crime.
Even Rio’s acting governor this week warned the Olympics could be a “big failure” while the latest bit of bad news washed up on the sand of Copacabana Beach when parts of a mutilated body were discovered just meters (yards) from where beach volleyball athletes will compete.
“I am not concerned about it, I am not concerned about it for my family,” said Blackmun. “That doesn’t mean you don’t take all necessary precautions but I feel very good. I can’t wait to go and every single member of my family is coming with me.
“Like any other Games, our expectation is that when the opening ceremonies come we are all going to be focused on that as opposed to these kinds of things.”
The Zika threat also continues to hang over the Games with Australia’s Jason Day, the world’s top-ranked golfer, announcing this week that he was withdrawing from the Olympics because of the virus.
Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner, Fiji’s Vijay Singh and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, have also pulled out due to Zika concerns.
U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies.
The World Health Organisation has said there is strong scientific consensus that Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis in adults.
“For the most part, the information has not changed all that much,” said Alan Ashby, the USOC chief of sport performance. “We are following the leadership of the CDC (Center for Disease Control), they are our infectious disease experts in this country and we have a close partnership with them.
“We will have the CDC at our team processing so athletes can have direct interaction with them.”
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)