Despite issues in Rio de Janeiro, US Olympic Committee goes full steam ahead
Despite the concerns over the Zika virus, contaminated water and other countries' doping investigations, the US Olympic Committee assures that American athletes will be fine in Rio de Janeiro.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Once they get to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, American athletes could be faced with virus-spreading mosquitoes, virus-infested water and the prospect of competing against at least two countries, Russia and Kenya, that are under investigation for top-to-bottom doping conspiracies.
The U.S. Olympic Committee's stance on all that: Everything will be just fine.
Leaders of the federation that seeds the Olympics with more than 500 athletes, whose success helps bankroll the entire movement via an NBC contract worth $1.23 billion this year, sounded confident that systems in place on all three fronts will work as planned.
They say calling for something drastic — say, moving the Olympics, or insisting the Russians don't compete in track — isn't necessary.
"I think we have to recognize what our role is," CEO Scott Blackmun said Monday at the USOC Media Summit, where more than 100 Olympic hopefuls are appearing. "We're one of 200 countries that participates in the Olympic Games. By definition, you have to have someone in charge of the overall project. Every single games brings its own unique set of challenges that causes people to question whether the games should've been awarded to 'X.'"
Of course, every stance the USOC takes — or doesn't take — has to be measured against the backdrop of the Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Olympics.
Olympic bidding is the most highly politicized endeavor in an already political movement. The USOC has no desire to call out the International Olympic Committee, the World Anti-Doping Agency or the next host of the Olympics. Nor does it want to start preaching to its international partners and competitors about doping, morality and the environment.
"I've got to trust that the USOC will show me the way, and that these things will be straightened out so we can focus on the task at hand," said gold medal hurdler Dawn Harper-Nelson.
The USOC was a leader in reshaping the fight against doping, helping fund the independent U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which opened in 2000. USADA leaders have been outspoken about the doping crisis in Russia, with chairman Edwin Moses saying the country's track team should be banned from the upcoming Olympics because there's no way to clean up a corrupt system that quickly.
The USOC isn't taking things that far. Chairman Larry Probst said he's confident track's governing body, the IAAF, and WADA "will do everything they can to protect the clean athlete," as those agencies continue investigations into both Russia and Kenya.
Not all athletes are so sure. Mid-distance runner Alysia Montano, who has lost multiple medals at major championships to Russians later proven to have doped, said "I'm not completely confident."
"You want to see (sports leaders) say they care more about clean athletes than they do about their own backsides," Montano said.
On the Zika front, the USOC has taken a more proactive stance of late in informing athletes about the risks. The effort kicked into high gear shortly after U.S. soccer player Hope Solo suggested last month that if the Olympics were being held now, she wouldn't go. Though Zika doesn't cause symptoms in most people, it's considered dangerous because it could cause unborn babies to develop abnormally small heads — a condition called microcephaly.
Last week, the USOC appointed a health commission to study and offer advice about the virus. Blackmun said athletes ultimately have to decide whether to travel to Brazil.
"One of the great things about having an advisory group is, there's some level of independence that comes with it," he said. "I don't know what kind of advice they'll come up with. Our sense is more that we put the decisions in the hands of the individual athletes."
Meanwhile, chief of sport performance Alan Ashley said he's seen slow, steady signs of improvement in water conditions in Rio.
Independent testing of Guanabara Bay conducted by The Associated Press over the last year shows disease-causing viruses linked to human sewage at levels thousands of times above what would be considered alarming in the U.S.
But Ashley said U.S. leaders in canoe and kayak, sailing and triathlon have redoubled their efforts to make sure athletes are using proper hygiene in everything from the way they take their boats out of the water to how they handle drinking water they bring on deck.
"This is not complicated," Ashley said. "But what I love about it is, they've interacted very well with their athletes to make sure they give them good information."
Ashley said that despite complicated issues, plans for Rio are moving "full steam ahead."
"The number one concern is to maintain their health and safety, customize according to the situation, look at individual safety and be flexible," he said.