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Olympic Chief: Zika Not Top Concern at Rio Games


Sidney Levy, Olympic Committee CEO, speaks during an interview in Rio de Janeiro. He visited VOA in late June.

Sidney Levy, Olympic Committee CEO, speaks during an interview in Rio de Janeiro. He visited VOA in late June.

Excitement is building for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The opening ceremony will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 5.

For months, news media have been reporting on Rio’s dirty water, mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus, transportation and security issues.

That does not sound promising for a city expecting famous athletes, government leaders and visitors from around the world for the games.

But during a recent visit to VOA’s headquarters in Washington, Olympic Organizing Committee chief Sidney Levy said something surprising: his top concern is not the Zika virus.

Zika spreads to human beings through mosquito bites. Experts are especially concerned about infected mosquitoes biting pregnant women. They say this could cause microcephaly, which is linked to brain defects from birth.

Sidney Levy said he has 4,000 people working to make Rio’s sports centers ready for the 2016 Olympics.

“Today, I have 4,000 people working for myself. In the fields, in the beaches in the parks, in t-shirts, and I have not a single case of Zika. So we really think this is not a threat.”

Levy defended his claim. He said a study by researchers at England’s Cambridge University shows the likelihood of getting infected with Zika during August in Rio is one-in-1 million.

Still, some athletes have expressed concerns about competing at the 2016 Olympics. The Irish golfer Rory McIlroy said recently he would not travel to Rio because he was worried about Zika. And a group of 150 doctors, scientists and bioethicists wrote a letter to the World Health Organization. They want the Olympics moved or postponed because of Zika.

Levy said workers have been using insecticide products in the city for months and they will continue to do so during the games. Insecticides are designed to kill insects.

Also, August is winter in Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. This should mean somewhat cooler temperatures and fewer active mosquitoes.

With so many people coming into Brazil, Levy told VOA he is more concerned about security and transportation.

The city of Rio de Janeiro has been making improvements to its public transport system. It has new underground rail lines, new roads, new light trains and buses. Levy said he thinks more than four times as many city residents will use public transportation after the games than before.

“So when we decided to do the games, the main question is, ‘Why to do the games?’ Why go into that such complicated effort? And there is just one answer. Is for: ‘What can the games do for your city?’ That's what really the matter. And we decided to do a major transformation of the public transportation system in Rio de Janeiro. We decided that seven years ago, and we went for that."

Rio is home to more than six million residents. About 500,000 more people are expected to visit there during the Olympics. City officials are preparing for the large number of arrivals. They also plan to use 85,000 security officers during the games.

Only two years ago, the World Cup finals were played in Rio. And an estimated two million people crowded the city’s streets during the visit of Pope Francis. Sidney Levy said city officials learned from that experience and plan to use the same system to keep people safe.

Police protest their pay in late June, just weeks before the opening of the Rio Olympics.

Police protest their pay in late June, just weeks before the opening of the Rio Olympics.

Levy seems happy with the way Olympic organizers prepared for the games. He said they kept working even when faced with other issues, such as the impeachment trial of Brazil’s president.

But he admitted to being dissatisfied with one aspect of the Games preparation. The water of Guanabara Bay is still not clean. Some Olympic sailing events are to be held in the bay. Right now only 50 percent of the sewage flowing into those waters is being treated. Levy said he hoped the number would be closer to 80 percent.

But there have already been two test sailing events. And none of the competitors got sick.

"And we are able to run the competition. We will run the competition. No athlete is going to get sick. But we failed to clean the waters for the population."

If the water is not clean in time for the Olympics, Levy says the sailing events will be moved to another area.

I’m Dan Friedell.

Jeff Swicord wrote this story for VOANews.com. Dan Friedell adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

How do you think the city of Rio de Janeiro is doing in preparing for the 2016 Olympics? We want to know. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

sewagen. waste material (such as human urine and feces) that is carried away from homes and other buildings in a system of pipes

impeachment – n. the act of charging a public official with a crime done in office

bioethicistn. an expert in biology and medicine who understands the rules of good and bad behavior

birth defectn. a problem, disease or fault contracted before birth that makes a baby not perfect

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