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Will van Garderen’s Olympic exit convince others to skip Rio?

Tejay van Garderen will skip Rio. Will other Olympians follow suit?

In case you have been ignoring the Internet, the entire sports world is embroiled in a debate over the Rio de Janeiro Olympics and Brazil’s widening outbreak of the Zika virus. Last week, more than 100 doctors and professors wrote an open letter to the World Health Organization asking for the games to be postponed or moved.

Should the IOC cancel the games, relocate them, postpone them, or simply go forward? As the weeks go by, more doctors, scientists, and even athletes are weighing in.

The most recent public opinion comes from our sport’s very own Tejay van Garderen, who told Cyclingnews.com that he plans to skip the games due to his fears over Zika.

From Cyclingnews.com:

“I know the risks are small, and there are precautions you can take, but the fact is I just don’t want to risk bringing anything into the house that could potentially have an effect, however small the chances are.”

The news makes van Garderen the highest profile American athlete to skip the games explicitly due to Zika. He’s not the first athlete, however. Fiji’s former No. 1 golfer Vijay Singh and Australian golfer Marc Leishman have already bailed out of the Olympics, and both cited Zika as the culprit.

There’s also a growing list of athletes who have publicly stated their fears about Zika, from soccer stars Hope Solo and Alex Morgan, to Kenya’s entire Olympic team. The United States Olympic Committee reported told U.S. sports federations that athletes and staff who have fears of Zika should consider skipping the games.

Van Garderen’s fears stem from Zika’s dangers to unborn children. His wife, Jessica, is pregnant with the couple’s second child, and van Garderen said doesn’t want to risk infection.

As you may know, Zika reportedly does horrible things to unborn children. The most recent study of the virus looked at its impact on mice and lab-grown brain cells. From an L.A. Times story on the report:

“While that firewall between mother and child is still immature, Zika attacks those cells and penetrates the placental barrier. As it does so, the virus also disrupts the growth of placental blood vessels, limiting blood flow to the baby and stunting fetal development.

“If the fetus survives the onslaught, the virus will make its way to its developing brain. There it will wreak destruction on the stem cells that are meant to develop into a mature organ. As Zika replicates madly, these stem cells and immature neurons die off in droves, the researchers found. The differentiation of tissues that normally produces a healthy brain goes awry — sometimes subtly, sometimes horribly.”

Sheesh, after reading that, I don’t think anybody can blame van Garderen for his decision. Yes, there are dozens of media reports out there stating that Zika fears are overblown. Yes, there are even more media reports out there discussing how unlikely it is to contract the virus. But if you were an expecting parent, would you not think twice after reading the latest science?

As a fan of van Garderen’s, I’m bummed to see him withdraw from the Olympics. His strengths on long ascents could give him an advantage on road race’s Vista Chinesa climb, and he’s a talented time time trial rider. He’s a veteran, and could lend his expertise to the U.S. team.

But van Garderen has already earned his Olympic rings, so it’s not as if he would attend Rio for life-affirmation reasons. And there’s a good chance that he would enter the Olympics with tired legs after his efforts at the Tour. The pressure is on him to perform in France after last year’s disaster. If van Garderen buries himself, achieves his Tour goals — perhaps a podium finish — and then skips Rio, that’s a scenario that fans can live with.

The real question here is whether other athletes decide to bail on Rio, once news of van Garderen’s decision filters into the mainstream media. There is a realistic scenario in which athletes with small children or expecting wives choose their child’s health over their personal glory. I’m sure that few first-time Olympians will pass on the games. But I can envision some veteran Olympians deciding to bail, reasoning that it’s just not worth the risk.

If that’s the case, perhaps we will be able to trace the Great American Olympics Exodus of 2016 back to Tejay van Garderen.