Why play games with Zika? That’s what players from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins are asking Major League Baseball. The teams are scheduled to play a two-game series on May 30-31 in San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The Puerto Rico Health Authority has reported more than 700 cases of the virus. On April 29, federal officials reported that the first U.S. death linked to Zika virus disease occurred in Puerto Rico.
The CDC recommends that pregnant women not travel to Puerto Rico. Zika has been linked to microcephaly and other severe brain abnormalities in children. Most people who contract Zika don’t suffer symptoms, which include fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain and headache. The Centers for Disease Control says that Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare disorder that can cause muscle weakness and paralysis for a few weeks to several months, is very likely triggered by Zika in a small percentage of infections.
Of most concern to the male baseball players: men can spread Zika through sexual contact. If a player were to contract the disease through a mosquito bite while in Puerto Rico, then get a partner pregnant soon after, the fetus risks contracting microcephaly. The CDC recommends that men with Zika symptoms wait at least six months after the symptoms subsist before trying to conceive a child. (Women with symptoms need to wait just eight weeks — scientists believe Zika can persist in the testes long after it’s been cleared from blood). Asymptomatic men should wait at least eight weeks to attempt to conceive, and to also talk with a health care provider.
The CDC briefed players on both teams about Zika: Marlins pitcher Tom Koehler, the team’s player representative, said the warnings were “more shocking” than most players expected. As first reported by Yahoo! Sports, players from the Marlins and Pirates have let Major League Baseball know that they want the games moved from Puerto Rico to Miami. (Though Miami-Dade county has seen 40 Zika cases) A decision is pending.
U.S. Olympic athletes, who in August will travel to ground zero of the Zika outbreak — Brazil — haven’t taken any such action. No one has publicly backed out. But if Zika frightens one set of athletes, the baseball players, why should Olympians feel so secure? While Olympians will surely take note of the baseball players’ wishes to steer clear of Puerto Rico, the risk-reward calculation for most Olympic athletes is far different. They train their whole lives to compete in this one global event, which occurs every four years. If they have to delay starting — or expanding — families until months after the Olympics, so be it.
The baseball players own more leverage. They know it’s relatively easy to shift two games to Miami. Olympic hosting requires years of preparation. The Games aren’t moving to Miami, or anywhere else.
When it comes to Zika and the Olympics, expect no shocks. As the threat grows more serious, a few athletes may decide to skip the Games for health reasons. Who could question that intensely personal decision? But if the entire athlete delegation heads to Rio, that’s no surprise either. The Olympics mean that much.