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Team USA Leadership On Zika: “Our Main Emphasis Is Communicate And Educate”

By Karen Rosen | March 07, 2016, 5:10 p.m. (ET)

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun speaks at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 7, 2016 in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES -- Team USA leadership stressed that athletes have the final say in deciding if they want to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in light of the Zika virus.

“Based on the information that we have today, we are not looking at any overall options – it’s up to each athlete,” Scott Blackmun, CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, said Monday at the Team USA Media Summit in Los Angeles. “I’m not aware of a single athlete who has made a decision not to attend because of conditions.”

The Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, has been linked to birth defects in children.

Both Blackmun and Alan Ashley, chief of sport performance, said the USOC is gathering and disseminating information gleaned from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and the International Olympic Committee.

“Our main emphasis is communicate and educate,” Ashley said. “In the end, it has got to be the athletes’ decision. It’s their Olympic Games, they’re the ones who qualified and the best thing we can do is provide them as much clear information as we can for they and their families to make the very best decision for them as a family.”

The USOC recently appointed a three-member infectious disease advisory group. Blackmun emphasized that the USOC is not a health policy organization, but wants to comply with the health policies and recommendations of the CDC and the WHO and make sure resources are available to athletes and staff.

On the ground in Rio, Blackmun said the USOC will be providing mosquito netting and bug repellent and offering information about what to do around standing water, how to wash clothing “and all the things to lessen the likelihood of infection.”

He said the USOC will have an appropriate level of medical support on the ground so people who are infected can be treated quickly.

Information is available to athletes and to the public at TeamUSA.org/RioTravelUpdates.

Team USA plans to send about 550 athletes to the Olympic Games and 265 to the Paralympic Games.

“We think we'll have really strong teams and do extremely well in the competition,” said USOC chairman Larry Probst.

Blackmun added that the USOC “substantially narrowed our mission in 2004 to focus on sustained competitive excellence at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

More than half of Team USA is selected through U.S. Olympic Team Trials and broadcaster NBC plans to telecast 75 hours of Trials coverage, which Blackmun called “unprecedented.”

About 110 athletes are available for interviews at the Media Summit, a USOC event since 1988.

Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Baird said USOC is heading into a heavy period of sponsor launches and events, with the fourth 100 Day Countdown Times Square extravaganza planned in New York City.

“We can say this is one of the most marketed games ever for both Olympic and Paralympic Games,” she said.

One World Trade Center, known informally as the Freedom Tower, will display the Team USA medal count in lights on the building during the Rio Games.

Baird said the reason behind the robust sponsor activation is that “everybody who has been to Rio realizes it's one of the most special cities there are. People are open to celebrating that, No. 2 is NBC, who has started their promotion of the Games, is really exciting Americans.”

Baird said the USOC has 39 sponsors and works very closely with them to develop their promotion plans.

“What you hope as a marketer is that really breaks though on the American consciousness. This is one of those special things that brings our country together.”

But while the athletes’ stories are inspirational, water quality and budget cuts in Rio have been other hot-button issues marring the lead-up to the Rio Games, with some critics saying the Games never should have gone to the South American city.

“Every single Games brings on its own unique set of challenges that cause people to question whether the games should have been awarded to them,” Blackmun said. “This Zika virus and water quality and other issues are serious issues and they’re real issues, but they’re not unique in the sense that we face issues with respect to every Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

Ashley said he’s not concerned about any of the venues and praised the Rio organizing committee.

“They’ve done a really good job under pretty tough circumstances of focusing on the athletes and making sure they do everything they can to put together a great experience for the athletes,” he said. “While they’ve had some adjustments and challenges with their economy, the reality is they've stayed true to the mission as it relates to athletes. They’re doing a good job making sure the venues are going to be ready and will be great competition venues.”

Ashley said Rio has taken a lot of steps to mitigate the pollution in the bay, though he admitted “it’s not clean yet.

“I see progress. I think there’s a lot of discussion about what's not happening but I also see that a lot has happened.”

He also said athletes practice rigorous protocols, such as those regarding cleanliness of paddles and boats, and follow specific recommendations to stay “hygienically in a good spot” so they “don't contaminate themselves.”

Ashley added, “Sailing has been very successful at staying healthy and having a good experience down there.”

The Media Summit runs through Wednesday.