RIO DE JANEIRO – The world’s best-known Olympic historian said Friday it will take something more destructive than the Zika virus to cancel the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“Historically, the only times the games have been canceled is in war — World War I and World War II,” David Wallechinsky said in an interview. “Other than that, nothing has done it.”
Brazil is the epicenter of the rapidly spreading mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is also generating rumors that South America’s first games may be called off instead of opening on Aug. 5.
Researchers have linked the virus to a birth defect that can leave newborns with long-lasting health and developmental problems.
Brazil’s Sports Minister George Hilton issued a statement saying that canceling the games “is not in discussion,” and Rio organizers and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly shot down the notion that it is even being considered.
Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, said the only similar case was the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, when three athletes from West Africa were banned from competing over fears they had contracted the Ebola virus and the subsequent possibility of it spreading.
“That’s the only time that disease has ever entered into it,” he said.
The 1916 Olympics were called off during World War I, and four games — two summer and two winter — were cancelled between 1940 and 1944. Two Summer Olympics were hit by partial boycotts in 1980 and 1984.
Wallechinsky said it is too late to move the games from Rio. “A lot of money has been put into this — the athletes, the infrastructure,” he said. “It’s pretty late to move the games, so I think they’ll go forward.”
Brazil is spending at least $10 billion to prepare for the games, in which more than 200 nations will participate. Billions have been spent on television rights, and maybe just as much on sponsorship, with more spending planned on advertising across 28 sports federations.
“There would be a lot of lawsuits,” Wallechinsky said. “It would be a dream event for lawyers.”
The Zika virus adds to other problems with South America’s first Olympics, including water pollution in Rio’s venues for sailing, rowing, canoeing, triathlon and open-water swimming, and deep cuts of almost 30 percent to keep a $2 billion operating budget in balance.
Only about half of the domestic tickets for the games have been sold, and organizers fear the Zika outbreak could scare off foreign tourists — particularly Americans.
Janice Forsyth, an Olympic historian at Western University in London, Ontario, predicted the Zika threat “is going to blow over.”
“But if it really catches on, then we’ve got a global concern that’s not just about the Olympics,” she said. “But it would have to be really extraordinary for the game to be canceled. Even with threats of terrorism, the games still don’t get canceled.”
Forsyth said the virus might even have a beneficial impact on Rio’s preparations, distracting critics from other problems. “In a sad way, maybe it’s a positive diversion from what is actually going on with the games,” she said, “a twist for games that seem to be constantly struggling.”