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The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, thrust potential Olympians into the midst of the unprecedented outbreak of the Zika virus. Because parasocial interaction theory purports that athletes can have tremendous influence on fans’ attitudes and behavior, particularly in the context of public health, it is important to understand how media framed athletes’ response to their risk of contracting Zika at the Games and the possibility of a global epidemic. To understand how athletes’ safety concerns were portrayed by news outlets, the authors conducted a framing analysis of articles reporting on the intersection of the Olympics and Zika published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post between January and November of 2016. This analysis revealed that media employed three main frames in their coverage of athletes: Athletes perceived the risk of Zika as small compared with potential Olympic glory, the decision to participate in the Games is an athletes’ personal choice between family and career, and athletes used Zika concerns as a convenient excuse to pull out of a troubled Games. The combination of these frames painted a contradictory portrait of athletes’ risk perception, both emphasizing and downplaying the threat of contracting the virus at the Games and an ensuing worldwide outbreak. These conflicting athlete narratives could have created uncertainty regarding the actual safety risk of the Zika virus and the Olympic Games for the fans who admire the athletes.
Kastrinos and Damiani are graduate students in the Journalism Dept., and Treise, their advisor, is with the Advertising Dept., College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.