By Stephen Wade
AP Sports Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO — Peter Van de Vliet relished the question about special risks facing Paralympic athletes competing in Rio de Janeiro.
But the medical and scientific director of the International Paralympic Committee didn’t have a simple answer.
The question: Are Paralympic athletes more vulnerable than Olympic athletes to environmental problems in Rio, including water pollution in venues for sailing, rowing, canoeing, and swimming — and the Zika virus?
Van de Vliet said he had not heard of any Paralympic athlete pulling out of Rio.
Xenia Christian senior Grace Norman is scheduled to compete at the Paralympic Games as a member of Team USA.
The Paralympics open Sept. 7 with 4,350 athletes, preceded by the Olympics, which run Aug. 5-21 with 10,500.
“Having said that, we do have a certain athlete population that might be a bit more vulnerable to infection,” Van de Vliet said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. “There is definitely, by the nature of certain impairments, a group of athletes that might need a little higher threshold to fight an infection.”
Van de Vliet put on the list: spinal-cord injuries, and some athletes with cerebral palsy.
To illustrate physical problems, he used the example of athletes who have lost both lower limbs and have trouble regulating body temperature. Or athletes with “intellectual impairments” that are vulnerable because of poor hygiene habits, or the visually impaired simply not being able to see open wounds.
But he also added a large advantage. These athletes have top medical care — far better than most poor residents of Rio de Janeiro.
“Also, you should never forget that these are athletes,” Van de Vliet said. “That means that across the board their resistance to any kind of negative impact is — by default — a little higher than the normal (impaired) population.”
He used the example of athletes with spinal cord injuries, but could be speaking about any Paralympic group.
“They are highly trained and very aware of their capacity and limitations. This does make them very different from the regular spinal-cord patient.”
Van de Vliet, who will be in Boston this week for the annual meeting of The American College of Sports Medicine , said part of the conference included a special section on preparing athletes for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Van de Vliet, who holds a doctorate in physiology-therapy, said Paralympic athletes would be getting the same advice given to Olympic athletes about the bacteria and viruses in Rio’s waters — and the Zika virus, which has been shown to cause birth defects.
“All athletes are treated in the same way, and any preventive strategy that applies to Olympic athletes easily carries over to Paralympic athletes,” Van de Vliet said.
The Paralympic Games seem to have avoided the problems with doping that are dogging the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee announced recently that up to 55 athletes have tested positive for doping in a reanalysis of samples from the past two Summer Olympics.
“I strongly believe we are not exposed to the same risk or abuse as Olympic athletes,” Van de Vliet said. “Having said that, we clearly should not be naive.”
Van de Vliet said the popularity of Paralympic sports had mushroomed in the last 10 years. Though good news, it also meant that the threat of cheating had increased.
“The environment has changed drastically,” he said. “The profile of the sport has increase significantly, and that’s a good thing. But unfortunately that brings risk.”