RIO DE JANEIRO – John Speraw is one of the best volleyball coaches in the world. Last year, he led the U.S. men to their first World Cup title in 30 years. He won three NCAA championships in his days at UC-Irvine.
But Speraw is more renowned for a gesture he made on behalf of future generations − his own − this past spring. The U.S. men’s Olympic coach had his sperm frozen in the unlikely event that he contracted the Zika virus in Rio de Janeiro during the Games.
Speraw knows the possibility of a man getting Zika and passing it on months or years from now is remote. But in researching Zika, which is spread by mosquito bites and can cause serious birth defects, he found there wasn’t much definitive information on the subject.
So he took it to the bank, just to be safe. Suddenly, he was the face of Zika fears among Americans concerned about going to the Games.
“I was honest about it,” said Speraw, whose best player is West Seneca’s Matt Anderson. “I don’t lie awake worrying about Zika. I know the probabilities are incredibly low. I just thought it would be a smart idea.
“My wife and I want to have another kid,” said Speraw, 44, whose wife was pregnant at the time with their first child, a daughter. “It’s concerning if you’re 44 and thinking about expanding your family and you get so much conflicting information.”
Fear of the unknown has been a prevailing theme of the 31st Summer Games, which get underway with the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night. Rio has been described as a city of extremes, incredibly beautiful and flawed.
Seven years ago, when the city was awarded the Games, it was filled with hope and optimism. But the intervening years made it an Olympics of dread, with a pile of concern as high as the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue rising above the city.
The leadup to every Olympics is rife with worry. In China, it was the air pollution and food quality; in London, the weather and terrorism. Sochi was called “The Security Games” because of the fear of a terrorist attack.
Every four years, we hear about the exorbitant cost of staging the Games and whether it benefits the host city. But this year seems more ominous than normal, because the timing for an Olympics in Brazil − the first ever held in South America −could not be worse.
Brazil is in its worst recession since the 1930s. The mayor of Rio admitted the Games could be “a big failure” because of funding shortages that could affect transportation. Protesters are picketing the airport with signs that read, “Welcome to Hell.”
The country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is under impeachment on charges of fraud. Her trial is slated to be held during the Olympics. There is a $3 billion bribery case that involves construction companies involved in Olympic projects.
A new subway extension was supposed to be done months ago. That was pushed to Aug. 1, four days before the Opening Ceremonies. Most venues and residences are complete, but there are concerns about power shortages, gas leaks and malfunctioning toilets.
The Australians refused to check into their rooms last week because of such issues. The problems were resolved, but it didn’t inspire confidence that the 17-day Olympiad would proceed without incident.
Crime is a major concern, driven by drug trafficking and gang warfare, mostly in the surrounding slums known as favelas. Over the last year, Rio’s robbery rate increased by 30 percent and the murder rate by 15 percent. France’s security officials have advised travellers to have spare bills ready for muggers.
One New Zealand athlete was reportedly kidnapped and robbed by police, who kill dozens of people every year. Near a beach volleyball venue, human body parts washed up in the surf. Two Paralympians from Australia were held up. The U.S. State Department has warned Americans to beware of pickpockets and credit card and ATM scams.
Raw sewage and trash stream from neighborhoods directly into the water where rowing, sailing and other water sports will be held. Competitors will wear special suits to limit contact with contaminated water.
Only half of the 3.5 million event tickets had been sold as of two weeks ago. Close to a quarter had reportedly been returned by customers concerned about safety. There will be no lack of security, however. Some 85,000 soldiers, police and other security will be on hand, twice the force in London when it was criticized as an armed camp.
Police arrested 10 people last week for allegedly declaring their allegiance to ISIS and discussing attacks in Rio. In the aftermath of the recent attacks in Nice, Brazilian authorities say they will take extreme precautions with outsiders.
Considering these many issues, it’s no surprise that many people would stay home. That includes several prominent (and rich) basketball, golf and tennis professionals, but also many fans and family members of Olympians.
Archer Jake Kaminski, an Elma native, said he “disallowed” his parents, Bob Kaminski and Suzanne Linde, from going to Rio.
“How do you like that?” Linde said with a laugh. “My son said absolutely not. We talked about this as a family months ago and he said, ‘Mom and Dad, I would worry about you too much and I need to just go and do my job.’
“Of course, we respect his wishes,” said Linde, who watched Kaminski win silver in London. “So I look forward in four years to going to Japan.”
But the show goes on. NBC Universal will show a record 6,755 hours of Olympic programming on its platforms. The vast majority of athletes, who scramble to make ends meet and whose fortunes can change drastically with a medal, will be in Rio. So will their families.
Larry Regan, whose daughter Emily is rowing in the prestigious women’s eight (fellow Buffalo native Tom Terhaar is the coach), said a party of a dozen will be in Rio cheering on the women’s eight, which has won gold in 10 straight international events including the last two Olympics.
Regan has traveled the world to watch Emily row and said concerns about Rio weren’t going to deter him.
“I’m an optimistic person,” Regan said. “We’ll do what we need to do in terms of precautions. For the most part, I don’t think there’s any real concerns among our immediate family. What are you going to do, stay home and be frightened? It’s not in our nature to be that way.
“We don’t plan on traveling down any dark alleys or anything like that,” he said. “We’ll stay on the main thoroughfares. You could be a victim of crime anywhere. You could be a victim here at home.”
West Seneca’s Nancy Anderson feels the same way. Her son, Matt, is the best men’s volleyball player in the country, if not the world. She has been counting the days until the Olympics. She’ll be in a group of 11 going to Brazil.
“The Zika virus? I don’t worry for myself,” she said. “I’m a little older, so I don’t plan on having more children. It’s OK. I’ll bring my bug spray, anyway. I was in Rio 10 or 11 years ago (when Matt competed in juniors), and I’m looking forward to going back.”
So is Rick Suhr. He coaches his wife, Jenn, a Fredonia native and the defending gold medalist in women’s pole vault. They deal with all kind of issues, like transporting the poles (only a third of airlines take them) and changing their competitive routine.
“We have a list of like 150 things,” he said. “Zika is up there. The water we’re drinking is a concern. I got sick drinking the water in Beijing. Crime on the streets, yeah, I worry about that. But I’ve been just about everywhere − Beijing, Moscow − and traveled some pretty tough neighborhoods.”
Suhr has one less worry. Yelena Isinbayeva, Jenn’s main rival and two-time gold medalist, will not be in Rio because the Russian track and field team was banned for state-sponsored doping. Isinbayeva’s personal appeal was denied last week.
Doping is always an issue. The World Anti-Doping Agency is vigilant for PED use among Olympic athletes, even more so after the IAAF banned the Russians, who are far from the only offenders.
The Olympics aren’t the innocent event of former times. But once the Opening Ceremonies are finished (bet on Pele to light the flame), fans hope the host city’s issues will prove exaggerated and the world’s finest athletes will be the real story.
More than 10,000 athletes will compete for 308 medals. Allowing professionals into the Games two decades ago rankled traditionalists, but it allows athletes to compete into their late primes and sustain some compelling stories over several Olympics.
Jamaica’s Usain Bolt is back, looking to become the first man to win the 100 and 200 meters in three straight Olympics. Swimmer Michael Phelps will look to add to his record 22 medals in his fifth Olympics. Great Britain’s Mo Farah, who electrified the home crowd by winning the 5,000 and 10,000 in London, will run in Rio.
Golf (men’s and women’s) returns for the first time since 1904. Rugby will make its debut. So will the nations of Kosovo and South Sudan. It will also be the first Summer Olympics held entirely in a country’s winter season (the average temperature in Rio in August is in the low 70s).
There will be 555 athletes from the U.S., 292 of them women. Just days after Hillary Clinton became the first woman nominated for president by a major political party, the females are once again expected to be the top American success stories.
The women’s soccer and basketball teams will be defending gold medals. So will the women’s gymnastics team. Kerry Walsh-Jennings is looking for a fourth straight gold in beach volleyball, this time with April Ross after her old teammate, Misty May-Treanor, retired.
Serena and Venus Williams are seeking a fourth tennis doubles gold, while Serena will defend the singles title she won in London. Alyson Felix can break Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s record for U.S. women’s track medals in the 4x100 meter relay. Suhr, of course, is out to repeat in pole vault.
The women’s rowing eight, with Buffalo well-represented by Terhaar and Regan, tries to win a third straight gold medal.
For women, the Olympics are their moment to shine, to be equal with the men who dominate the sports news and command the big salaries the rest of the time. You don’t hear most of them complaining about filthy water and mosquitoes. They’re used to struggle.
Megan Kalmoe, who rows in pairs for the U.S. women, posted a blog that urged people to stop fixating on dirty water and other issues. Kalmoe said athletes push their bodies to extremes to become Olympians. She said it was time to get behind the athletes.
“I will row through s--- for you, America,” Kalmoe wrote.
So hold your noses, and let the Games begin.