There are some athletes who desperately wanted out of these Olympics.
But there are many more – such as Charlotte Olympic swimmer Cammile Adams – who desperately wanted in. How desperately?
“You could tell me I’m going to get Zika,” Adams told me, “and I’m going to go anyway.”
The Zika virus, transmitted by mosquitoes, is no joking matter. Zika infection during a pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly as well as other severe brain defects. Zika is a public health emergency in Brazil, where the Olympics officially begin Aug. 5.
But Adams wasn’t joking. She is 24, getting married in October and hopes to have children sometime in the distant future. The native Texan rests smack in the middle of the “You Need To Worry About Zika” demographic.
For Adams, though, Zika and all the rest of Brazil’s problems never made a dent in her will to compete in her second Olympics and win her first medal.
“The U.S. Olympic Committee is going to take care of us,” said Adams, a bubbly optimist who has a twin sister and was elected by her teammates as one of the Olympic swim team’s captains last week. “I’m not really worried about it.”
Other athletes are worried, and in no sport will the absences be more glaring than in golf. Golfer Rory McIlroy, perhaps the most popular player in the world and a former No. 1, will skip going to Brazil because of Zika concerns. Current No. 1 Jason Day also withdrew, citing Zika.
“The reason for my decision is my concerns about the possible transmission of the Zika virus and the potential risks that it might present to my wife’s future pregnancies and to future members of our family,” Day said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Dazzling American golfers Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson are also skipping Rio, meaning none of the world’s top four golfers will play. This has been a huge black eye for the sport (the top women’s golfers, interestingly, are almost all going to play in Rio).
Many NBA players sitting this one out
You could field a gold-medal caliber team from the NBA players skipping the Olympics as well, with LeBron James and Steph Curry leading the “Non-Brazil” team. Both LeBron and Steph cited the need to rest their banged-up bodies after reaching the NBA Finals – not Zika. A number of other high-profile NBA players are sitting this one out as well for various reasons. (And there are a lot of those, with security concerns and Brazil’s unstable government being prominent among them).
Why does Olympic participation – or lack thereof – seem to be breaking along this fault line? I believe it’s because the Olympics mean more to the athletes who don’t already get paid millions to play their sport whether they go or not. For swimmers and kayakers, gymnasts and sprinters, archers and triathletes, the Olympics are the ultimate.
“I’m not worried about Zika,” said Michal Smolen, the Charlottean who has earned a spot in these Olympics in the men’s whitewater kayaking. “I think it’s not a big deal. I think the media has been pumping it up a lot, but I’m focused on my training.”
Abby Johnston, an Olympic diver, is in a unique position with Zika – she has already competed in Brazil once this year. And she also starts her third year at Duke’s medical school right after these Olympics are over. Johnston calls Zika “concerning” but never has seriously considered skipping these Summer Games once she made the team.
“Since I know something about infectious diseases,” Johnston said, “I am going to be really diligent about reminding my teammates about how to reduce the risks and what sort of bug spray to use.”
Like Adams, Johnston is engaged. Johnston plans to marry Duke assistant football coach Sam McGrath in 2017 and she is making sure that she will not be getting pregnant anytime soon. But she also seems somewhat resigned to getting bitten by a mosquito in Brazil.
“It’s tough in our sport,” Johnston said. “You wear a bathing suit that covers hardly anything, you’re outside all day long, and the water washes off the bug spray. The last time I was there in February, I did get several mosquito bites. But once it happens there’s nothing you can do.”
‘It’s all very exciting’
It’s true that there is no medicine or vaccine for Zika. It’s also true that for most people the disease causes only mild symptoms (fever, rash, joint pain) or else no symptoms at all.
For many athletes, especially those in the more traditional Olympic sports, that seems a risk well worth taking. It’s also true that athletes who are among the best in the world at what they do are natural optimists. This makes sense when you think about it. They have succeeded, over and over. They have all repeatedly triumphed over adversity. If you are an Olympian, life has usually gone well for you.
Adams, the Olympic swimmer, is confident enough that the Olympics in Brazil will go well that 10 of her family members are going down to South America to watch her compete. She finished fifth in the London Olympics in her signature event, the 200 butterfly, and her main concern right now is finding a way onto the podium this time around.
“It’s all very exciting,” Adams said. “I can’t wait.”
As for golf, the wholesale defections from the game’s top players sends a strong signal that the game’s return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904 was a mistake.
McIlroy was asked in a news conference earlier this month if he was going to view much of the competition in Brazil. He said he planned to watch a number of events – but probably not golf.
“I’ll watch track and field, swimming, diving,” McIlroy said. “You know, ones that matter.”