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Olympic trials: Zika, money woes and Rio's reputation

Everyone’s talking about the upcoming games in Brazil – but for all the wrong reasons. Our experts weigh in.

July 27, 2016

Cory Phare

On the eve of the 2016 Olympic Games, the buzz is less about athletics and more about a variety of concerns: the spread of the Zika virus, which has prompted some high-profile competitors to bow out; the political and social turmoil in Brazil; and the enormous financial risk of hosting the games.

What’s going on? We asked three MSU Denver experts: Associate Professor of Biology Robert Hancock, Ph.D., known locally as the “Mosquito Man,” Chair and Professor of Economics Arthur Fleisher III, Ph.D., and Marketing Senior Lecturer Darrin Duber-Smith.


What is the tangible threat of the Zika virus to Olympic athletes, tourists and visitors to Brazil?

Hancock: My guess is that the combination of pre-Olympic preparations by Rio (through mosquito abatement), the season (with fewer Zika-transmitting mosquitoes than earlier in the summer), education and self-protection (including bizarre things like one of the Korean teams wearing anti-mosquito training suits), that Zika transmission to athletes will be very, very low.

I expect that far more athletes will return to their respective countries with other acquired diseases and infections, such as sexually transmitted diseases and bacterial or foodborne illnesses. In fact, the No. 1 killer of foreign travelers is automobile-related.


What effect does Zika have on the games?

Duber-Smith: Ticket sales are very slow for Brazil, just like we saw with the World Cup in 2014. But things are even worse now than they were two years ago – structurally and economically. It’s dirty, crime-ridden, the president’s being indicted – there’s political upheaval. All of this was already happening pre-Zika. The Zika virus is like the cherry on top, scarier than pollution and crime.

The Olympic committee has recently offered the local discounted ticket rate to everyone around the world due to slow sales, which reflects global concern. In short, this is already a huge mess.


How might Brazil and the Olympics mitigate the brand damage done?

Duber-Smith: You can’t put lipstick on a pig. The environment is polluted, there’s stuff floating in rivers, tourists are being robbed. That’s what people are going to see. Zika is an additional concern.

That said, Rio has huge cultural clout. So, they can talk about the positives of the World Cup – which wasn't great – but they can certainly sell it that way.


Can hosting the Olympics have a positive economic impact on the host city and country?

Fleisher: The truth is that most economists agree that hosting the Olympics has zero or a negative impact on the economy of the local area. This is especially true in developing countries like Brazil.

Duber-Smith: With something like this, there’s really not a lot to do to control what happens. You’ve got Mother Nature, crime, political and economic upheaval. Many cities have pulled out of the idea of having the Olympics, because the Olympic cities end up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, in some cases billions. They hope to make up for it in future tourism dollars, but that’s just not guaranteed. Only one city has ever made money and it is Salt Lake City.


Where does the money come from to host the Olympics, and how is it shared?

Fleisher: Total revenues from recent games is about 50 percent from TV, but the IOC shares less than 30 percent of TV revenues with local Olympic committees. The sponsorship is split about equally between the IOC and local committees. Domestic sponsors, tickets and licensing is kept by the local committee. If you look at the 2010 Vancouver games and the 2012 London games, the host costs were about $19 billion and revenues were less than $5 billion.


Back home, how much of a threat is the Zika virus in the U.S.?

Hancock: The threat now in areas where the Zika mosquitoes occur – in southern and eastern U.S. – is still low. The virus does not seem to be steamrolling throughout Florida like many predicted it would. The most threatening aspect of Zika to U.S. citizens is sexual, where an infected person transmits it to a partner without using protection.

Remember the epidemiology of mosquito-borne viral diseases: A human that acquires an infective quantity of the virus will experience increasing viremia, or virus in the blood. At some point, usually between one to two weeks, there will be enough viremia to give rise to a mosquito infection (should the viremic person be bitten). Then, the virus must cycle in the mosquito (building as in the human) until the mosquito has enough virus in its saliva to start an infection in the next human that it bites … and so on and so forth. Basically, there are relatively short windows of time during which both mosquitoes and human hosts can actually serve as a source of the virus.


Is Zika a threat to Coloradans?

Hancock: Aside from travel-acquired cases, Zika as a mosquito-borne disease in Colorado has a very low likelihood of ever occurring. We do not have sustained populations of the vector mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus. The mosquitoes have been found at three different locations (at one of those locations for three different years), but they do not appear to establish here.