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What I’m worried about at the Rio Olympics

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You're hearing a lot about everything going wrong ahead of the 2016 Olympics. Rodger Sherman is traveling to Rio on Friday. Here's what he's actually worried about.

I am going to cover the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Everybody who hears that has given me some sort of advice on how to avoid some sort of catastrophe. I’m not worried about most of the problems that have plagued the Olympic games, and most people heading to the Games shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t problems.

I’m not worried about getting the Zika virus. For starters, it’s winter in Brazil, and a lot of people on the ground have said there aren’t any mosquitoes to be seen. But even so, I plan on wearing long sleeves, long pants, and lots of bug spray.

I don’t think most athletes should be worried about getting the Zika virus, either. More than half of the athletes at the Olympics are men, and the vast majority are non-pregnant women. The people most affected by Zika are the babies of women who are pregnant while infected. Most athletes will not experience any serious drawback from Zika.

That said, there’s a relatively high possibility that an athlete in Rio is pregnant and doesn’t know it. There were five pregnant athletes at the London Olympics, including American gold medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and Kim Rhode. If an Olympian were to find out after returning from Rio that they were pregnant during the Olympics, their joyous news would come with a tinge of fear.

And as the Harvard Public Health Review points out, it is tremendously irresponsible to hold an international sporting event in the midst of an infectious disease outbreak. People from over 190 countries will come to Rio, where a highly infectious disease is running rampant, and then they will return to those countries. That has the risk of turning an epidemic into a pandemic, and all for the sake of a sporting event.

And of course, there are the people of Brazil. There was no cure for Zika before the Olympics, and there will be no cure for Zika after the Olympics. Brazilians will continue to bear children with drastically diminished lifespans and quality of life, and most people won’t bat an eye because no athletes had any problems.

When the athletes leave Rio healthy, we will assume the Olympics have gone off without a Zika-related hitch. But the truth is, when the closing ceremonies end, the story of Zika and the Rio Olympics will just be beginning.

* * *

I’m not worried about the water quality in Rio. I can drink bottled water, and brush my teeth with bottled water, and keep my mouth closed in the shower.

But many of the Olympic athletes won't have the luxury of not going into the water. Olympic canoeists, rowers, sailors, triathletes, and open-water swimmers will use the open waterways of Rio, and the water there is filled with trash, human waste, and bacteria. The Olympic sailing venue has water with 195 times the American safety threshold for fecal pollution. The Associated Press found disease-causing viruses at 1.7 million times the acceptable threshold. Swallowing three teaspoons of the water will result in a 99 percent chance of viral infection. Drug-resistant superbacteria associated with hospital run-off has been found in the Olympic open-water swimming, rowing, and canoeing venues.

Competitors have been advised to keep their mouths closed, and the American team will row in antimicrobial suits. But no doubt athletes will get sick. American rowers at a recent test event were stricken with vomiting, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal ailments. So did sailors at a 2015 event, and surfers at recent events in Rio.

But this is only a temporary problem for the athletes. The larger problem, and the reason Rio's waterways are so filthy, is that a large portion of Rio citizens live in places that aren't connected to the city's plumbing. They live every day in the presence of raw sewage, drastically affecting their short-term and long-term health. There are sewage waterfalls. The Olympics was supposed to fix this, but planned improvement projects have been postponed. And if it couldn't be fixed for the Olympics, you have to wonder if it ever will be fixed.

* * *

I’m not worried about crime in Rio. I’ll keep my hotel room locked. I’ll do my best to stay in Olympic neighborhoods and areas not known for crime. I’ll keep my cash, credit cards, and passport all in separate places.

But that might not help. There have been robbery schemes in the Olympic village — I had to laugh at the vomit-based one — and people in the media village I’ll be staying in have had their rooms broken into. I’ve come to terms with it: If the worst thing that happens to me in Brazil is somebody takes a hundred dollars from me, I’m fine with that.

But perhaps more troubling than the fact that crime exists in Rio is the way the government has tried to deal with it. Unable to fix the root causes of crime in Rio, the government has put thousands of heavily armed police in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and there they have killed hundreds of Rio citizens, primarily young black men.

The cops in Rio have been called the deadliest in the world. The killings have caught the eye of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Although the killings are often described as "shootouts," evidence — including interviews with police officers — often suggests that they are often extrajudicial executions of detained citizens.

Just like with the 2014 World Cup, police killings have spiked in advance of the Olympics. This is not a coincidence. The Brazilian government sees the murder of its own citizens as a legitimate public safety strategy. And the increased demand for public safety that comes with an international sporting event means an increase in killing.

I am not worried about crime in Rio. I’m fine parting with some cash or worldly possessions as long as I’m safe. But so many in Brazilians have to fear for their lives, not only at the hands of criminals, but at the hands of the people supposedly protecting them. I’m not worried about crime in Rio, but Brazilian citizens have died so that I can avoid that worry.

* * *

I’m not worried about how everything in Brazil seems to be broken. The showerheads in the rooms aren’t there! The sink might fall apart! There’s leaking!

These are inconveniences, funny little quirks to tweet about. But in the grand scheme of things, they’re fine. Give me a showerless room with a dog bed. I can tolerate it for two weeks.

But they’re symptoms of a larger disease. The reason things are broken everywhere is because Brazil did not have the money to spend billions of dollars on constructing things, leading to rushed, shoddily done buildings.

They spent billions on a velodrome and a canoe slalom course and an Olympic stadium and a field hockey stadium and expanding the airport. Meanwhile, they can’t afford to pay police and firefighters or get the poop out of the water.

Brazil’s economy has tanked in the last five years, to the point it couldn’t afford to pay its regular bills. Hosting the Olympics was like buying a yacht when Brazil couldn’t make its car payments.

I’m not worried about how everything in Brazil seems to be broken. But the Olympics will guarantee that things in Brazil stay broken for some time, and the country’s people will have to live with that long after I leave my uncomfortable hotel room.

* * *

I just spent a while telling you what I’m not worried about. But I am legitimately worried about the threat of terrorism at the Olympics.

There have been threats against the Games already. As we’ve seen in attacks across the world, it only takes one person with a gun, bomb or truck to cause enormous loss of life. And the people attempting to inspire terrorism in Brazil are aiming their overtures at lone wolf attackers.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the ability of those whose job it is to secure these games. Brazil is inexperienced in dealing with terrorism threats. And it hasn’t exactly inspired a lot of confidence. First, we were told the private security firm in charge of securing venues couldn’t identify guns or bombs. Then, that firm was replaced with Brazilian police forces with just a few days before the Games. Then I remembered that these were the same Brazilian police who publicly complained about how they haven’t been paid. My fears have not been helped by the fact that it’s reportedly possible to get into Olympic areas without passing through any sort of security checkpoint.

The people in charge of the Olympics should know that they’re a target. Terrorists have targeted Olympic games since before we called them terrorists. They should have known better than to put the Olympics in a place where security might be an issue.

* * *

Most likely, nothing will "go wrong" in Rio. All the athletes and fans and media will probably go to Brazil, have a great time, and leave safely. But even if that’s what happens, things have gone wrong. These Olympics will aid the worldwide spread of a horrendous disease. They have led to the deaths of Brazilian citizens. They have caused a cash-strapped nation to spend billions of dollars that it will never recoup, preventing it from tackling issues it actually needs to tackle.

And there’s the possibility that something does go wrong in Rio. I believe that it’s unlikely that something awful will transpire, but I keep fixating on the fact that it might.

The Olympic Games are meant to make the world a better place. These Olympic games will actively make the world worse. And that’s on the International Olympic Committee.