Credit Felipe Dana/Associated Press
The biggest challenge for Olympic and health officials in combating the Zika virus before the Rio Games may be the popular and far-flung sport of soccer, which will be played across Brazil.
While many events will be contested in Rio de Janeiro, the soccer competition is to be contested in five additional cities. They include Manaus, the sprawling and isolated gateway to the Amazon, where canals laden with garbage and sewage were evident in places during the 2014 men’s World Cup.
Soccer also helps illustrate the conflicted and awkward position in which female athletes can be placed as they consider whether to travel to Brazil and risk possible complications with pregnancy that may be caused by the virus, which is mosquito-borne.
Writing on Forbes.com, the medical ethicist Arthur L. Caplan and his New York University colleague Lee H. Igel said: “It is beginning to look like the time has come to call off the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The reason is simple: Young women cannot travel there safely.”
Credit Buda Mendes/Getty Images
History suggests that moving, postponing or canceling the Rio Games is unlikely at the moment. Still, the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee and U.S. Soccer, along with other sports federations, have reacted in an unhurried way that critics have viewed as tone deaf.
No officials have spoken with particular forcefulness to reassure women that the health risk will be minimized and that they will not be forced to choose between sport and reproductive health.
For months, the I.O.C.’s level of concern for the well-being of athletes in Rio has been widely criticized, given the highly contaminated water at venues for rowing, canoeing, sailing and distance swimming events. And now comes the Zika virus, which, scientists say, can be transmitted sexually and may cause babies to be born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.
“I think our sports leaders have been remiss on both counts, to be more protective of not only our athletes, but the international community of athletes,” said Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
Among the most visible women at the Rio Games should be members of the United States soccer team, winners of three consecutive Olympic gold medals and, most recently, the 2015 World Cup.
The team is training in Texas for the regional Olympic qualifying tournament, which begins there on Wednesday. The competition will include teams from Zika-affected places like Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
“The safety of our athletes and staff is always the highest priority, and we are taking all necessary precautions in regard to the Zika virus,” Dr. George T. Chiampas, the chief medical officer of U.S. Soccer, said Thursday in a statement.
Team officials are gathering medical information and will speak to the players in coming days, another American soccer official said Thursday. The official said that if any player declined to play in the Olympics because of concerns over the Zika virus, she would not be blackballed from future inclusion.
“Can you imagine the backlash if a player was cut because she was asking her federation to find out more about this?” said Julie Foudy, a retired captain of the American team.
Even so, players may be reluctant to speak up, in fear of losing their spot in the lineup, just as players in various sports are often afraid to admit to concussions, Lapchick said.
Some women may worry about “having the coach look back and wonder if they’re really committed,” he said, adding, “If they spoke up as a team, obviously they’d be in a more powerful position.”
Players displayed unity by protesting against artificial turf used at last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada. In December, the American women refused to play an exhibition in Hawaii, saying the turf was unsafe. And they are challenging the federation over collective bargaining.
But to threaten to boycott the Olympics over the Zika virus is “not the kind of thing you bluff, and the I.O.C. knows it,” said Mary Jo Kane, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
Thomas Bach, the president of the I.O.C., told reporters this week that he was “very confident” that athletes and spectators would be safe in Rio. He noted that there was no travel ban to Brazil and that the Games would take place in the normally cooler, drier conditions in the Southern Hemisphere winter.
That is true, but it rained sufficiently at the Pan American Games in Rio in July 2007 to wash out the bronze medal game in baseball. Impeccable weather is not a guarantee.
So far, the American women seem single-minded in their purpose. “Rio we got our eyes set on you!” forward Alex Morgan wrote on Twitter.
Two players from the World Cup team, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez, are pregnant and will miss the Olympics, but those decisions had nothing to do with the Zika virus, team officials said.
Jill Ellis, the coach of the American women, told The Dallas Morning News, “I have confidence in people that will make decisions much higher up than I in terms of safety and protection for not just our players but the community in general.”
Referring to concerns about smog ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and terrorism before the 2012 London Olympics, the star midfielder Carli Lloyd told the Dallas newspaper, “Every time we get there, it’s perfectly fine.”
Ultimately, the decision about whether to play in Rio should rest with the players, Foudy and others said. They have trained for years for these Games, and some may have no desire to bear children. Still, Foudy added, it was up to the soccer federation to “do a better job” of educating the players about the Zika virus.
“You want every federation to at least educate and have that conversation and have a plan in place,” Foudy said.