Zika virus outbreak raises concerns for Rio Olympic cyclists

The outbreak of the virus has been labelled as an international public health emergency, with the Olympic Games road race and time trial only six months away

Photo: Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz (CC2.0)

The recent outbreak of the Zika virus concerns women's cycling, but the stars of the sport say they will not change their plans because of it ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games this August.

Mostly contained to the Americas, the first European case surfaced in Spain yesterday after a pregnant woman travelled back from Colombia. The virus has been linked to babies being born with underdeveloped brains, or microcephaly.

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"The only thing that I know is that I'm not going to get pregnant!" Swede Emma Johansson (Wiggle-High5) told Cycling Weekly.

"I don't think it's going to be a big issue in the end because you're not going to go there being pregnant if you're an athlete."

The explosive outbreak is caused by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that virus lingers in the body for a week. It could affect a woman if she becomes pregnant in the week after being affected. In men, it is said to last in semen for two weeks. The fear concerns both athletes and national staff members.

"If I was pregnant," Johansson added, "I would never travel there."

Health officials are also unsure as to whether any other serious conditions could be related to the outbreak of Zika. After three people were infected with the normally treatable Guillain-Barré condition in Colombia this week, the country's health minister told the Guardian that links to the Zika outbreak were still unconfirmed.

The Australia Olympic Committee has already informed their athletes to be careful regarding Zika.

"Australia is strict and aware of everything," Australian Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) said.

"I'm luckily I come from a nation where they are so strict about everything, they will keep our health first and take all the precautionary measures we need to avoid any athletes being contaminated."

The risk is not only for sports in or near water where mosquitoes sometimes thrive, but for major metropolitan areas like Rio de Janeiro. Like cockroaches, the insect thrives in urban jungles.

Cyclists, racing southwest of the city along the Atlantic coast for up to six hours, could be susceptible to the female insect bite.

"I haven't thought about it much yet," Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans) explained. "It's not going to change my plans, though, because I still have to go to the Olympics. I want to be there at my best, and it's not going to change it for me."

Brazilian organisers said today they have no plan of calling off South America's first Olympic Games.

"The Brazilian government is fully committed to ensure that the 2016 Rio games take place in an atmosphere of security and tranquility," Sports Minister George Hilton said in a statement reported in the AP. "The Games will take place with full attention to the health of the participants."

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Gregor Brown

Gregor Brown is an experienced cycling journalist, based in Florence, Italy. He has covered races all over the world for over a decade - following the Giro, Tour de France, and every major race since 2006. His love of cycling began with freestyle and BMX, before the 1998 Tour de France led him to a deep appreciation of the road racing season.