The world’s greatest sporting extravaganza is almost here. The Olympics will start with a dazzling opening ceremony on August 5 in Rio de Janeiro, but there will be a difference this time. Alongside heroic tales of qualification, there have also been withdrawals, either through injury or because of perceived health risks.

Of course, some of these are unavoidable for a competition of the scale and size of the Rio Olympics. But Brazil's sporting carnival could see more athletes than ever before voluntarily to represent their country in individual or team events than any Olympics before.

The greatest reason, of course, is single biggest scandal that has engulfed the sporting world. Already, the Russian contingent of 68 track and field athletes who were banned by the International Association of Athletics Federations on account of state-sponsored doping charges levelled against it by the World Anti-Doping Agency were suspended from participation in the Games.

On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee did not accede to demands to actually ban all Russian athletes, but declared that "they are not allowed to compete in the coming Rio Games unless they are able to convince individual sports federations that they are innocent."

The Russian medal tally has historically been huge at the Olympics. If the country's sportspersons do not - or cannot – participate in the Rio Games, the medal charts will be impacted considerably. Many high-profile athletes, including the likes of sprinter Usain Bolt, have come out in defence of the ban.

Equally – or more – troubling is the fact that a large number of sporting superstars have pulled out of the Rio Olympics citing health and safety reasons. A host of other major athletes who will be attending have also expressed their concern, and they represent a wide range of sports and countries.

Who’s going to be missing?

Most prominent is the withdrawal of seven of golf’s top players, including World No. 1 Jason Day. Other top golfers, such as Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Vijay Singh have all declared they will be skipping Rio, even though the sport is making a comeback on the Olympic stage for the first time since 1904.

“While it has always been a major goal to compete in the Olympics on behalf of my country, playing golf cannot take precedence over the safety of our family,” Jason Day (pictured above) wrote on Twitter.

The United States basketball team will also be competing without two of its giants. Lebron James and Stephen Curry have both withdrawn from Rio, citing a need for rest and injury, respectively for their absence, besides fellow team-mates Chris Paul, Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin. For Lebron, however, the decision might have been easier than most, for he has two gold medals and one bronze at the Olympics already from three prior appearances.

However, without two of their best, it would be interesting to see if the United States can continue their mastery over a sport they have traditionally dominated.

Tennis, cycling, and track and field events are among the other categories which will miss some top competitors. Five of the top 25 players in the world in tennis are skipping Rio, including Nick Kyrgios, John Isner, Dominic Thiem, Bernard Tomic and Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, who, given Rafael Nadal’s decline, could have been a strong bet for a medal for Spain.

Marathoners Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto have also pulled out citing scheduling concerns, while amongst the cyclists, American Tejay Van Garderen has bowed out on account of his wife’s pregnancy and the suspected effects of the Zika virus on fertility.

Similar concerns have led the coach of the United States men’s volleyball team John Speraw to declare he will “freeze his sperm” before he attends the Olympics – a suggestion others like Pau Gasol, a Spanish basketball player, are also contemplating.

In terms of overall loss of athletes at the Olympics due to all the reasons combined, Russia is far and away the worst affected because of the state-sponsored doping scandal. Amongst the rest, Australia, followed by the United States, seem to be the biggest losers, while it is interesting to note that almost no athlete of Asian origin has yet pulled out. Nor have Asian participants like China, Japan and India expressed concerns about the Zika threat in as strong terms.

Keeping players on their toes

That is not to say tensions are not running high. While Gasol and Speraw’s idea remains unprecedented in terms of Olympic preparation, it can hardly be cited as excessive, or eccentric. Many at the very top of their respective sports and disciplines, including American tennis player Serena Williams and the goalkeeper of the US women’s football team Hope Solo, have expressed concerns over the perceived threat of the virus.

The female athletes have cited risks to future pregnancies as a major factor. “I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child,” said the 34-year-old Solo in February.”I don’t know when that day will come for Jerramy [Solo’s husband] and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby. No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma.” Her feelings echo that of many competing athletes.

Meanwhile, other contingents such as South Korea’s have announced that their athletes will be wearing “Zika-proof” uniforms, featuring attire pre-treated with mosquito repellents. Nations like Great Britain, Australia and the US have also stated in the past that they would be looking into the safety and health of their athletes, even as the World Health Organisation insists that the risk of the Zika virus will fall significantly in August.

Over 26,000 cases of the virus have been registered in Rio, and the WHO, despite its calming pronouncements, has issued directions for pregnant women not to visit the games, and for their sexual partners to practise “safe sex or abstain throughout the pregnancy”. It is not an ideal situation, but maybe the prospect of competing at the world’s biggest sporting event will somewhat alleviate the fears.