British Columbia

Zika, water risks 'overblown' for Rio Olympics, says Canadian team's top doctor

Canada's Chief Medical Officer for the Olympics has fears about the games in Rio de Janeiro — but they are not about mosquitoes or polluted water venues.

'7,000 athletes competed in test events ... zero of those have gotten sick,' says Dr Bob McCormack

Concerns that everything from water pollution to Olympics in Brazil, from water pollution to Zika virus, are overblown, says Canadian Olympic team's chief medic. (Google Images)

Canada's Chief Medical Officer for the Olympics has fears about the games in Rio de Janeiro — but they are not about mosquitoes or polluted water venues.

It's the inadvertent positive [drug]test that probably scares us the most.- Chief Olympic medic for Canada, Dr. Bob McCormack

With 10,000 athletes heading to South America in the next few weeks there has been concern about high viral levels from sewage contamination in the Olympic water venues and about an outbreak of Zika virus, linked to mosquitoes.

But Dr. Bob McCormack says much of the fear is "overblown."

"There's been a lot of hype about Rio but it's not a lot different than any other games," said McCormack who is an orthopedic surgeon who works at Eagle Ridge Hospital in Port Moody, B.C.

"There is unique medical concerns in every country," he said.

Canada's chief Olympic medic says fears of mosquito or water borne illness are mostly "hype." (Bob McCormack)

McCormack says it is winter in Brazil so mosquito counts will be down, and a lot of work has been done to get rid of mosquito habitat.

"I'll be surprised if we see any mosquitoes at all,"  he said.

He noted that 7,000 athletes competed in test events in Brazil in higher risk times of the year and "zero of those have gotten sick" with Zika.

Water pollution improving

Images of fish and garbage floating in the water where athletes were set to row or swim did get McCormack's attention last year, especially after an AP analysis of water quality revealed dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage in Olympic and Paralympic venues.

The quality of the water in Guanabara Bay has been a concern for sailors leading up to the Rio Games. (Tasso Marcelo/Getty Images)

Those results alarmed international experts and dismayed competitors training in Rio, some of whom have already fallen ill with fevers, vomiting and diarrhea.

But McCormack insists that the water has improved and the most recent coliform counts have actually been pretty good.

"Of the 50 athletes that competed in the open water swim in the test event — that would be putting your head in the water for ten kilometres — zero got sick," said McCormack.

None of the Canadian athletes in the other water-based sports — swimming, triathlon, canoe, sailing — showed signs of ill health after test events either. 

He admits that six per cent of the international athletes competing did get sick overall, but notes normally 25 to 30 per cent per cent of travellers in tropical countries are expected to have gastrointestinal issues or "travellers diarrhea."

Accidental doping bigger dread

What McCormack is more concerned about is athletes accidentally taking performance enhancing substances.

"It's the inadvertent positive [drug]  test that probably scares us the most," he said.

Supplements can contain banned substances that are not listed in the ingredients, and that why he says there is a big focus on educating athletes about what to avoid.

"It's a real concern because a positive test is not only a black eye for that athlete and their sport, but for the entire country as we saw with Ben Johnson," he noted.

McCormack says they sit down with every athlete and go through everything they are taking to ensure that there are no banned substances entering their bodies.

He believes that's why Canada is not seeing positive tests for several games in a row.

As for medals, "I'm optimistic we are going to do better than we did in London!"

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