NAIROBI • Kenya has threatened to pull its elite runners and other athletes out of the Rio Olympics unless it receives assurances they would not be exposed to the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil.
Sports authorities across the world are scrambling to find out more about the mosquito-borne virus as they make plans for the Games in August.
"Obviously, we are not going to risk taking Kenyans there if this Zika virus reaches epidemic levels. They have to assure us that the country is safe enough to take athletes there," the head of Kenya's Olympics committee, Kipchoge Keino, said yesterday.
Kenya is expected to be one of the star performers in Rio, fielding some of the best middle- and long-distance runners in the world. The East African nation topped the medals table at the 2015 World Championships.
Keino, 76, a former Olympic champion, said his office has been in touch with the Olympic organisers to voice their concerns.
"We have made it clear that unless they clean the venues of this potentially dangerous disease, we will not go there," said the chairman of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya, who won Olympic gold medals at Mexico City and Munich.
"But if they assure us that things are in order and there is no risk to participants, mothers, we will go."
The World Health Organisation declared an international health emergency on Feb 1 over the outbreak of the virus that authorities fear is linked to a rise in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect marked by an abnormally small head.
The United States Olympic Committee has told its sports federations that athletes and staff concerned for their health should consider not going to Rio.
Federations were told that no one should go to Brazil "if they don't feel comfortable going", said Donald Anthony, president and board chairman of USA Fencing.
The US won the most medals at the last Olympics in London in 2012, so any disruption to its presence would be important for the Rio Games organisers.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised pregnant women or those considering becoming pregnant to avoid travel to places with Zika outbreaks.
In a Jan 29 letter from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to national committees, the IOC's chief doctors said they were monitoring the situation closely.
They passed on mosquito avoidance advice, but remained confident the Games would go ahead.
The Australian and New Zealand Olympic committees said they had warned their athletes of the potential dangers for pregnant women.
"If any athletes on the team felt they didn't want to go, we would absolutely support them on that," a New Zealand Olympic Committee spokesman said yesterday.
An Australian Olympic Committee spokesman said they would "totally understand" if an athlete chose not to go to Brazil. "But at this point, no athletes have indicated they intend to withdraw from the team," she added.