In approximately five months, three weeks and two days, the world will witness the Opening Ceremony for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. *Cue the Samba Music* Many will gather around their HDTV screens to watch the best athletes in the world run, jump, flip and swim towards gold. Weeks before, those same athletes will fly to Rio to begin their on-location training and to take in all that the city has to offer. They will likely be greeted by fans, the media and mosquitos. Mosquitos? Yes, mosquitos will be at the airport chomping at the bit for some super-powered athlete’s blood. And for many that’s an issue.
It’s no secret that Zika-virus-carrying mosquitos have been wreaking havoc on our brothers and sisters in the southern hemisphere. Aside from the flu-like symptoms and pink eye that are common affects of the virus, Zika has been linked to microcephaly in infants born from mothers who were infected with the virus[i]. Microcephaly is a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. It has been linked to seizures, intellectual disability, problems with vision and hearing, and even death. For men and women the thought of subjecting themselves or their unborn children to the Zika virus and microcephaly is enough to make them re-think or completely change travel plans. And our normally fearless athletes are no different.
In fact, on Monday Team USA goalie Hope Solo expressed her very real concerns about participating in the Olympics in a country that has been hit hard by the virus. Solo shared that if she had to make the choice right now, she would choose to forgo the Olympics because of her concerns about contracting Zika and possibly transferring it to her not-yet-conceived child. Because so little is known about the virus and a vaccine would not be available before the end of 2017, it is likely that Solo isn’t the only athlete concerned about the potential health risks involved with competing in Brazil.
That Solo would be willing to miss an opportunity that less than 1% of the world’s population will ever experience to exercise caution is nothing to be overlooked. It’s a big deal to say I’ll pass on the Olympics because there’s a chance I could be infected with a mostly non-deadly virus. What if other female athletes took the same stance? What if August shows no improvement in the Zika virus epidemic and all female qualifiers decide to forgo the summer games to protect themselves (and any children they conceive before, during or after the Olympics) from the Zika virus? I guarantee that if female athletes went MIA there’d be a lot of unhappy people.
Let’s look at some numbers. In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, women made up 44% of the athletes. For the first time, every participating country sent a female athlete and the United States sent more female athletes than male athletes. There were about 2.1 million attendees for the first 3 days of competition in the 2012 games. The same games were the most watched television event in US History. More than 219 million people watched and primetime viewership averaged 31.1 million people per night. In 2004 and 2008, respectively, 50% and 49% of the viewership were women over the age of 18. Bringing in 4.25 million viewers, the most watched event in the history of NBC Sports Network was the gold medal match for the Team USA Women’s Soccer Team in 2012. Not only do fans watch the Olympics on their televisions, they now stream events in record numbers. The 2012 games saw 159.3 million streams, and 4 of the 10 most streamed events were women’s events. Fans are also finding ways to keep in touch with their favorite Olympians. In 2012, 7 of the top 10 most clicked Olympians were women. Financially, the numbers are large as well. Before the start of the London games NBC brought in $1.25 billion in advertising revenue. Visitors spent 760 million GBP in the UK in July and August of 2012 and overseas visitors spent $4.5 billion in August. *Insert wide-eyed emoji* Good Lawd, that’s a lotta money! To make a long story short: 1) lots of women participate in the Olympics, 2) many people watch, attend, spend and make money on the Olympics and 3) many play particular attention to women’s sports and female athletes.
If no female athletes competed viewership and attendance would greatly decrease. While fans would likely tune in and attend some events, a great deal of people would lose their enthusiasm to support the games. Decreases in fan enthusiasm translate to losses for sponsors, the International Olympic Committee and Brazil, which have spent untold amounts in preparation for the games. Female athletes help generate excitement and revenue for the games. Fans want and pay to see women compete and hosts and sponsors need to have them compete so they can recoup their investments. When people don’t get adequate returns on their investments they reconsider how they spend their money. So any significant declines in attendance and revenue in the games in Rio could in turn make it increasingly difficult for developing countries to garner support for hosting future games. I can hear companies like Coca-Cola now, “We can’t have the games in India! Zika ruined Rio and Chikungunya could ruin Mumbai!”
Initially, it may be difficult to imagine that the decisions of less than 5,000 women could impact the global economy and the trajectory of future Olympic games, but it is quite possible. If female athletes said no to the 2016 Olympics, you’d have a great deal of unhappy fans and organizations. I don’t actually think that we’re anywhere near a full on female no-show in 2016. I believe that the vast majority of female athletes, Hope Solo, included will have their confidence restored in time for the start of the games. Despite my beliefs I also think it’s important to recognize that a few women can truly have an impact on sports and the world. If female athletes decided to unite on a global front, their impact could be dramatic. They could affect change by affected the dollar. Perhaps they could champion for better coverage of their sports. Maybe they could champion the fight against sexual assault. Whatever the cause, it is clear that female athletes have economic power. Now, let’s all hope that they don’t feel the need to exercise that power by not attending this year’s games because I’m really trying to see some GladiatHers™ kick butt in Rio. But let’s also hope that in the future they will decide on some places where they need to exercise that power.
[i] In addition to spreading through mosquito bites, Zika virus can be spread through unprotected sex, blood transfusions and from mother to child during pregnancy.