Wednesday, June 01, 2016
Despite NBC’s gleeful countdown to their telecast of the Rio Summer Olympics, all is not well. Brazil is suffering serious political, ecological and economic problems, which will impact the summer games and by default our American athletes. President Dilma Rousseff faces impeachment, which began with a bribe and graft scandal involving Petrobas Oil, where she is chair the board, and evolved into a condemnation of her handling of the Brazilian budget. Once the scandal broke, Petrobas reported losses of $7 billion due primarily to the number of bribes and kick-backs they had paid out. The stock dropped 30 percent and began an economic tumble in Brazil. Rousseff has been accused of accepting bribes in return for issuing contracts to Petrobas at highly inflated rates. In December, the Brazilian congress heaped on, accusing Rousseff of adjusting government accounts preceding her re-election in 2015 and corrupting the budget. The lower house voted to impeach her and after some confusing political shenanigans by the head of the lower house, first annulling and then reinstating the impeachment vote, the matter went before the upper house. On May 12, the senate agreed to move ahead with Rousseff’s impeachment trial.
This political upheaval on its own might be enough to make competitors wary of participating in the Olympics, but it’s probably the least concerning issue. As Brazil devolves into a political quagmire, it’s the actual ecological muck that is immediately concerning the athletes. In the lagoon selected for several of the events, including the triathlon and open water long distance swimming, raw sewage enters at a higher percentage than fresh water. Several athletes who competed in events here in 2007 came down with serious gastrointestinal diseases, so serious that swimmer Chip Peterson had to eventually have his colon removed. He will probably return this year, but views with skepticism athletes who state that winning a gold medal is worth a little diarrhea. He paid a big price for his infection. Even kayakers, sailors and rowers face severe pollution problems, including garbage debris all along the courses and constant skin exposure to viruses and bacteria through the tiny nicks from scraping their legs and calves on the boat surfaces while rowing. The International Olympic Committee has been trying to quash worries and offer solutions since Brazil has run out of time and money to resolve the situation. Athletes will have access to immediate showers after events along with anti-bacterial cleansers and prompt medical attention. Epidemiologists study the waters, the air, and the soil in an attempt to predict the environments during August, but the task is nearly impossible as the tropical setting changes conditions almost daily, creating data that is contradictory and often unusable. Competitors will have to decide for themselves with limited information whether or not to participate. Balancing years of training against an unknowable health outcome is not ideal or even realistic. Haley Anderson, an open water swimmer, says she will rely on the people she trusts – coaches and U.S. officials – to help her make the decision. Unfortunately, based on quickly changing situations those decisions can’t be made until the last minute. A convergence of heavy rains causing run-offs of sewage-filled waters, high winds pushing garbage into the bays, and low tide allowing trash to accumulate on the surface can’t be predicted. August should be relatively dry, but given the instability of the weather recently, that fact can’t be counted upon.
Athletes who don’t compete anywhere near the water still face concerns about contamination since public water isn’t always treated and food-borne bacteria are prevalent. Even more significantly, a new concern has arisen over the past six months in the form of the Zika virus. Carried by mosquitos, the virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact. It has been implicated in birth defects of the brain, eye sight, and hearing, although there is no definitive proof that babies who experience these got them as a result of Zika. However, the virus does cause mild illness much like the flu, which can be detrimental to athletes without the added dangers of effects on a fetus. Since August is a dry season, Brazil hopes that the mosquito populations will be greatly reduced. They have also engaged an aggressive spraying program to help reduce populations and encouraged citizens to get rid of any stagnant water which is a breeding ground for the pest.
Which finally brings us to soccer. The U.S. Women’s National Team expressed concerns about the health issues in Brazil, and individual members are considering whether or not they will participate. However, at the first announcement of Zika, the team was focusing on a far more immediate grievance. They had lodged a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission against United State Soccer Federation (USSF) for pay discrimination. Their complaint argues that despite doing the same type and amount of work and achieving at their jobs beyond the level of the men they were paid significantly less. That complaint has now moved to a court case in which the WNT has requested the right to set aside their collective bargaining agreement with the USSF and be allowed to strike. If the court rules in their favor, the WNT will have a major decision to make. They have won the last three Olympics and are favored in this summer’s contest. Should they strike and not attend, they will be risking not only their legacy as it relates to the Olympics but their standing as a role model for young soccer players. While the issue of equal pay for equal work is an important issue for women, it’s less pressing for the youth player than a gold medal and national pride. The case went before Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman in federal court in Chicago for first arguments on May 25 and will be under consideration for several weeks. Coleman could issue a ruling or she could require the two sides to go back to the bargaining table. If she does the latter then there will probably be no resolution prior to the Olympic Games. It will then be up to the women to decide how they will proceed. If they opt to strike in defiance of their contract, it could pile lots of bad press on a team that has been nothing but a source of pride for fans. On the other hand, they might opt to forgo the Olympics using the argument that the unsanitary conditions and unstable political environment make the trip unsafe. Their case will be tarnished if they are the only athletes who refuse to go on the basis of the problems at the Olympic venue.
Nevertheless, I am totally on board with the women’s case. In preliminary briefs to the court it was revealed that the men got a $9 million bonus following their World Cup appearance in 2014 although they didn’t make it out of the Round of 16. The women won their 2015 World Cup and only received a $2 million bonus. To be fair, that has a lot to do with payouts from FIFA rather than U.S. Soccer bonuses. Even more significantly, the MNT failed to qualify for the Olympics, although to be fair the rules work against them. Men must be U-23 to play on an Olympic team, reducing the pool of top players. There is no age limit for the women. Practices, games, travel, and personal appearances are parallel in terms of time and effort. What is different is the level of success. The WNT has won consistently, and if they don’t win, they usually make the championship match. They have regularly been underpaid when compared to the men, and they have a clear argument that the discrepancy is totally based on gender, not on ability. In terms of pushing ahead the agenda for equal pay, the WNT holds a significant and supportable position.
Where they differ from the men is on the professional side, where the women’s league is still struggling and the MLS has begun to snag big name players from successful overseas’ teams such as David Beckham, Henry Thierry, and Steven Gerrard. Women don’t have the same draw. The men are also participating in the other big sporting event this summer when the United States hosts the Copa America Centenario, a competition which brings together the national teams of the Americas. If American fans want to see some top level soccer, this is the event to visit this summer. Matches will be held in Houston, Seattle, Santa Clara, East Rutherford, Chicago, and Glendale, beginning June 3 with a match between the U.S. and Colombia. The variety of stadium locations guarantees a large percentage of the population will be within three hours of a match. On the other hand, you’ll need plenty of money. Even seats in the upper reaches will run at minimum $75. The lower level seats will cost in the hundreds of dollars. But you have the opportunity to see players like Lionel Messi, arguably the best player in the world, compete for Argentina, and top players from Mexico, Brazil and Colombia – all eminent soccer powers. Watching the WNT compete in Brazil on TV will be a delight, but seeing these Copa teams live will be stunning. I encourage anyone who can to attend at least one match just to see how powerful the game can be when played at the highest level. Barring that, be sure to catch the matches on Fox, Fox Sports and Univision.
This will be an interesting summer, and like many I have mixed feelings on the Olympics. On the one hand, I look forward to seeing the best compete in so many amazing sports. With Brazil in an accessible time zone, we can look forward to seeing many of the events live. However I absolutely understand the quandary in which the athletes have been placed with all the pollution and political complications. That being said, it is important to note that the Beijing Olympics operated within horrible, choking air pollution, along with some serious safety concerns for athletes and visitors. The Sochi Winter Olympics ran under the veil of serious political unrest in Ukraine, only a few hundred miles away and in venues that were not completed on time. So while we wring our hands looking at Brazil and wonder if they will be ready, we also know that ready or not, Zika or not, contamination or not, the games will go on. The real wild card will be what the WNT decides to do. I’ll be really sad if they strike and don’t attend, but I’ll understand. Some issues are even bigger than a gold medal.