Brazil: When disease and disaster meet the Olympics

No Olympic Games go off without a hitch, but the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil seems to be courting a hitherto unseen number of disasters. There’s the microcephaly-causing Zika virus, which prompted high profile athletes such as Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic and top golfers Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth to stay home. There’s the unquestionably dubious water quality in the harbour that will host sailing and swimming events. There’s the athletes’ village, where half the accommodations have failed to pass safety standards—and which the Australian team refused to occupy. When you add in heightened fears of global terrorism, Brazil appears to be the Olympics that luck forgot.

But how much of it is Brazil’s fault? When you’re running the largest sporting event in the world, how do you mitigate all the risks involved?

The hardest part of addressing risk in terms of these massive sporting events is “the sheer size and speed of delivery. There are no do-overs. There are so many moving parts,” says Joanna Makomaski, president of Baldwin Global Risk Solutions Inc. and chief risk officer at Enterprise Risk Management in Toronto. She also worked as vice-president of enterprise risk management with the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games—the third largest sporting event in the world—where she was responsible for building a risk management framework.

“There are three concurrent risk assessments that need to get done going on: strategic risk assessments, project risk assessments, and operational risk assessments,” Makomaski says. “When you start up an organizing committee, it’s essentially a start-up [company]. You have to hire a CEO, a whole executive team. In five years you have to build a whole Olympic-sized organization and infrastructures. There’s a lot of strategic risk in making that happen.”

She notes issues such as employees uncomfortable with the short-term employment, cost creep, funding issues, and venue availability. Then there’s the sheer number of volunteers, contractors, sponsors and employees involved–at a global sporting event, they can exceed 100,000. And risk managers can’t forget all the athletes who need to be fed and accommodated, and the daunting number of tasks related to timing, scoreboard, and sport-specific set-up.

Plus, Makomaski says, the Olympics are becoming “more lavish than they used to be.” Consider for a moment the 1896 Athens games, the first modern Olympics. There were 241 athletes from 14 countries participating in 43 events in nine sports. In comparison, Rio anticipates over 10,500 athletes from 207 countries competing in 306 events in 28 sports.

From her Pan Am experience, Makomaski knows how risk management efforts can be interpreted quite differently by the public imagination. For that reason, she’s sympathetic and not willing to judge how Brazil is handling its own risk. Quite simply, unless you’re on the inside, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on. In Toronto, she says, “what was portrayed in the media was quite different from what I was perceiving. The media was talking about how we were going to have traffic doom and gloom, whereas I remember how this was just when the Boston marathon bombing had happened. That was the first time in a long time we’d seen terrorism back in the sports world.”

These days, on the other hand, terrorism seems much more prevalent. “I can see, with everything going on the in the world, that [terror threats] should be something thatis highlighted in ‘the bid book,’ the sales pitch that goes to the [International Olympic Committee]” for cities that are vying for the next Summer Olympics, Makomaski says, adding the importance of risk management needs to be put to the fore.

“I’d like to see this sort of language right within the bid book so it can appease natural concerns of the selection committee– that there will be infrastructure and people appointed within organizational committee to make [risk management] happen.”

For example, Canada geese were a huge concern at the Toronto Pan Am Games. “There were Canada geese roaming in awkward places,” Makomaski says. “There were geese on the athletic track. Last thing we wanted was an ‘Usain Bolt’ on the track running a sub-10-second 100 metres and a goose gets in his way.” So the facility used specially trained dogs to shoo them away.

“I am sure it will be great down in Rio,” Makomaski says. “They have weird and wild risks—but so did we. It’s about identifying them, and managing them, and making sure you have the systems in place.”

The knowns and unknowns of Zika

Dr. Tom Hobman’s cell biology lab at the University of Alberta is one of the few in the world that are attempting to understand how the Zika virus works, how to diagnose it quickly and cheaply (current methods take too long and require expensive equipment), and, ultimately, how to develop a treatment to prevent mother-to-child infection.

Zika’s profile has been amplified as many high profile athletes have abandoned the Rio Olympics, citing concerns about the virus and potential harm to them or family members upon their return.

Zika is unique insofar as it stays in the body for much longer than similar viruses, such as West Nile or dengue fever, Hobman says. “These viruses are cleared out very quickly. Usually after a couple of weeks, the virus is gone…We’re trying to figure out what the virus actually does to human brain cells and how it can stay in the male reproductive tract for months at a time.”

Zika is also unique in that it’s a mosquito-borne illness that can also be transmitted sexually. There have been documented cases of male-to-male, male-to-female, and now female-to-male transmission. “Up until a couple of weeks ago, no one would have thought that that was possible,” Hobman says. “New things about Zika emerge on a weekly basis.”

While the initial effects of Zika are mild— many who contract it don’t even know they have it—about one in a thousand end up with Guillain-Barré syndrome, and muscle paralysis that can be temporary. Or permanent.

Amidst all these unknowns (and knowns!), it’s not surprising that the risk of contracting Zika while in Brazil is scary.

“I don’t want to trivialize anyone’s concerns,” says Hobman. The unknown is very scary. The birth defects are serious. The last thing an athlete wants is any type of paralysis. But it’s important to remember that the risks remain very small.”

Copyright © 2016 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine

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