Canada’s Olympic athletes have been warned to prepare for a childhood disease that’s making a comeback.
Measles outbreaks around the world mean that the highly infectious bug has an opportunity to travel to London when thousands arrive for the Summer Games, which start July 27.
“One of the things we’ve always said to the athletes is, the Olympics is where the viruses of the world come to meet,” says Bob McCormack, the Canadian team’s medical director.
Measles symptoms including fever, cough, runny nose, conjuctivitis (pink eye) and rash are not conducive to a medal-winning performance.
“If you’re an athlete and you’ve been preparing for eight to 12 years for your one day to compete at the highest level, and you come down with measles – and when you get it as an adult it’s not fun – it would be a shame,” McCormack says.
The disease is spread through direct contact or secretions from an infected person’s nose or mouth. The virus stays active and contagious in the air, or on infected surfaces, for up to two hours, according to the World Health Organization.
Those who recover from measles are immune for life, says WHO.
When swine flu struck across Canada a few months out from the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., McCormack asked the host country’s athletes to get the H1N1 vaccine.
He estimated 80 per cent of the 206 athletes on the Canadian team did so.
He’s now encouraging summer athletes to find out of they have immunity to measles and get vaccinated if needed.
“We say it could be a serious issue for you when it comes to the Games,” he says.
“Although we’re going to a first-world country, you’ve got to pay attention to the details.”
Catharine Pendrel, a gold-medal hopeful in women’s mountain bike, is comfortable with her immunity to measles.
“I believe I’ve been vaccinated, so I hope so,” Pendrel says. “We have (support) teams that are very familiar with our medical histories.
“If anyone isn’t vaccinated and there’s an area of concern, I think Canada is very well prepared to make sure that each athlete is going to go there healthy and stay healthy while they’re there.”
Germs, the threat of terrorism, transportation headaches and doping are standing concerns at every modern Olympic Games.
But London poses no problems out of the ordinary for Canada’s athletes, says McCormack.
In Beijing, there was real concern over how Canadians could perform in the oppressive smog, heat and humidity.
A foreign language, cultural differences, unfamiliar food and even toilets that were holes in the floor rather than commodes were other wrinkles to get past.
Language and searing heat were also issues for Canadians at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece.
For the first time since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Canadians will compete in a Summer Games in which English is the first language of the host country.
Geographically and climatically, London is closer to Canada than Beijing or Athens.
“Beijing definitely had a lot of challenges with the travel and certainly a lot of other concerns,” says Pendrel’s Olympic teammate Geoff Kabush.
“I lived in England for a year when I was younger and spent several weeks there last year. We know exactly what we’re going into over there. It’s definitely going to be a lot calmer mentally.”
Transportation is perhaps the biggest issue for Canada’s athletes in a city of almost eight million people even before the Olympic hordes arrive.
Some Canadian athletes will wait until after their events to stay in the Athletes’ Village, which is located alongside several competition venues in East London’s Olympic Park.
“Not all of our athletes compete at the park,” points out Gene Edworthy, who is on the Canadian Olympic Committee’s board of directors.
“We’ve got the rowing events in Eton, the tennis at Wimbledon, the marathon swimming and marathon and triathlon in the Hyde Park area. We’ve got the combative sports over in the river section.”
The mountain bikers, for example, don’t compete until the final two days of the Games. The four-rider team will stay in a house in Battlesbridge a few kilometres away from the mountain bike venue at Hadleigh Farm.
“We won’t be staying in the village, just to reduce travel logistics,” Pendrel explains. “We’re going to be in a home together that we’ve already all stayed in.”
The triathlon team will stay in a residence near the their venue at Hyde Park until after the women’s race Aug. 4 and the men’s Aug. 7.
The COC holds annual seminars with athletes to prepare them for upcoming Games.
“We have everything planned out,” says road cyclist Clara Hughes. “There’s no doubt in my mind, I’m not going to be stressed in any way. Transportation-wise, race-wise, everything with the team is set up and there’s no concerns.”
The most recent Olympic Excellence Series for London was in Toronto last November, but the COC first started planning for London back in 2007, Edworthy says.
“Our focus has really been on athlete preparation,” he adds. “That means trying to make sure the athletes are as comfortable in the competitive environment as they can be.”