Being safe at the Olympic Games

Written by
Randall Gordon-Duff

05 Aug 2016

05 Aug 2016 • by Randall Gordon-Duff

However, much of the headlines around the event continue to focus on health issues when travelling to Brazil – in particular, the Zika virus outbreak in the country and the serious threat it poses to travellers.

Security concerns are also becoming more apparent, both on a local level and also in the context of a general rise in global security incidents. With unfortunate timing, these travel risk issues have been accentuated by the high-profile impeachment of Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, and the general political and economic turmoil in the country.

For instance, Brazil’s economic crisis has resulted in delays to civil servants’ salaries at about the worst time given the Olympics and influx of tourists and business travellers, while police officers have also voiced concerns around non-payment of salaries, along with shortages of basic equipment. On 7 July a group of police officers staged a protest at Rio’s International airport: dozens of officers gathered at the arrivals area of Terminal 2 with signs written in English stating: “Welcome to Hell. Police officers and fire-fighters are not being paid. Whoever comes to Rio is not safe”!

For HR professionals, the Games represent a challenge with regards to any staff looking to travel to the event on business (or even leisure) and/ or for those taking clients on corporate hospitality trips. Not only will there be particular health concerns, the heightened global risk and security environment should also be factored in – making sure employees have access to the right information and the right assistance facilities will be key.

Putting Zika in context

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the Zika outbreak, other potential dangers such as malaria are as significant and need to be considered with regards to health concerns. Malaria is a highly serious, potentially fatal illness spread by mosquitoes. While it is not usually a risk in the city of Rio de Janeiro, people planning to visit other areas of Brazil will need antimalarial tablets. One note of caution: access to antimalarial drugs while in Brazil will be limited and should be purchased before travelling and in some cases courses started before travel to ensure full efficacy on arrival.

It will also be the peak of the influenza season in South America during the games and as the 2016 southern hemisphere seasonal flu vaccine is not routinely available in the UK/ Ireland, individuals, especially those more pre-disposed to flu, will need to consult a healthcare provider for further advice.

While the Games will be based in the city of Rio de Janeiro, events will also be held at other Olympic sites including Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo and the Amazon city of Manaus. The latter venue – the famous and picturesque city of Manaus – will remain hot and humid all year round and represents a significant risk region for mosquito-borne infections such as Zika in comparison to Rio where the risk is lower at this time of year.

There is currently no preventative drug or vaccine for Zika, and scrupulous insect avoidance during day time and night time hours (but especially during mid-morning and late afternoon to dusk) is fundamental. Travellers are also advised to visit a doctor or clinic that specialises in travel-related medicine at least six weeks prior to departure: this will allow an adequate amount of time for any prescribed travel vaccinations to take effect, determine the need for antimalarial tablets and an opportunity to get detailed information on current health risks in Brazil.

Facilities available in more rural areas

While medical care in Brazil is generally considered to be of a good standard, particularly in the main urban centres of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the quality of facilities available in more rural areas varies greatly. Healthcare in the state system (Sistema Unico de Saude) is free at the point of access to visitors in an emergency, and although standards are improving in general, overcrowding remains a problem and quality can be inconsistent.

In addition, travellers need to be made aware that some doctors or medical centres may expect immediate payment for services or a large cash deposit, regardless of whether the individual possesses medical insurance or not. 

The threat of street crime

One of the main threats to tourists during the Olympics comes from street crime. Gangs employ minors to carry out bag snatchings and muggings in areas of the city popular with tourists. They often work in groups and can be extremely aggressive, using force to grab bags, wallets, jewellery and cell phones from their targets. Arrastão – roughly translated as ‘trawling’ or ‘large-scale plunder’ – is another technique popular with street thieves: it is a swarm attack involving a large number of assailants, who target a densely populated area such as a restaurant or beach.

The total security force during the Olympics will be around 85,000.  An estimated 6,000 additional police officers from various nationwide forces have been deployed in Rio to assist state police during the event. There have already been a number of high-profile incidents which have exacerbated the fears about security in Rio: in one incident, members of the Spanish sailing team were mugged at gunpoint in a popular tourist area close to the Marina da Glória venue.

General tips and advice:

•    Don’t carry expensive items or jewellery with you when walking in Rio
•    Rucksacks and handbags are key targets for street criminals
•    Criminal organisations and fraudsters often offer very attractive prices for accommodation, restaurants, tourist sites or even sold out tickets for the upcoming Olympic events. All bookings should be made through reputable, licensed companies
•    Taxis and transfers should be booked directly or through hotels and restaurants
•    Avoid entering into any of Rio’s favelas
•    If confronted by an armed criminal or group do not offer any resistance
•    Be careful when driving in the city as it can be extremely dangerous and difficult to navigate. There are multiple favelas in the north of the city where the international airport is located
•    Avoid all large gatherings, especially rallies or protests
•    If you are caught up in a protest find the safest exit.  Avoid areas with a large security presence and head for the edge of the crowd
•    Avoid taking photos or actively engaging in any of the chants or slogans used by the protesters.  These could be used as evidence against you if you are arrested or detained