Sailors, coaches and the mayor of Rio de Janeiro acknowledge the problem: Guanabara Bay, the venue for sailing at the 2016 Olympics, is badly polluted; so much so, that some liken it to a sewer.
The enclosed bay is filthy after untreated waste was poured into it for years, a mess officials say will take at least a decade to fix.
From a distance, the venue is picturesque, framed by Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue — This is the image that Rio Games organizers want the world to see.
Yes, the venue will make good television, but the conditions for the athletes? That is another story.
“A few days ago, one of the sailors had to jump in the water and the first thing he did after coming up was take a bottle of water and wash his mouth and face,” said Ivan Bulaja, a former Olympian who coaches the Austrian team. “When you feel this water on your face you feel uncomfortable. You have no idea what’s in it. I think no sailor is comfortable sailing here. I guess you can get seriously ill.”
Yet sail they will, starting on Sunday with the Games’ first test event. The week-long regatta will feature all 10 Olympic classes, with 216 boats and 321 competitors from 34 nations.
As the city dumps almost 70 percent of its untreated sewage into its surrounding waters, cleaning the bay was part of the pitch to land the Olympics, with officials pledging to cut the flow by 80 percent by 2016. However, Rio State Secretary for the Environment Carlos Francisco Portinho has said that even in a best-case scenario the reduction will be only 50 percent.
Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes acknowledged two months ago that the problem would not be solved in time for the Olympics.
“I’m sorry that we did not use the Games to get Guanabara Bay completely clean,” Paes said, but added that he was “not afraid for the health of any of the athletes. It’s going to be fine.”
A series of stopgap fixes are being put in place: trash boats to retrieve floating debris and barriers to stop sofas, wooden chairs and plastic bags from entering the bay.
Rio State environment officials said that in the first three months of the year, three boats retrieved 33 tonnes of solid waste from the bay, with 10 to be operating for Sunday’s test event.
The other problem is less visible: untreated human waste, which cannot be retrieved and leaves a stench all around the bay.
“At low tide, it smells like sewage water. It smells like a toilet,” said Austria sailor Nikolaus Resch, who finished fourth at the 2012 London Olympics in the 49er class with teammate Nico Delle Karth. “You see people going for a swim. I would never — under free will — go in the water here.”
At a small regatta last year, sailors were seen using alcohol to clean their hands after leaving the brownish-black water that is often capped with green foam.
To allay fears, the International Sailing Federation and local organizers are encouraging teams to test the water around the course areas. Rio State environment officials describe these areas as “suitable for swimming” and say they monitor fecal coliforms monthly, but have been doing it every two weeks since last month to prepare for the regatta.
Tides, shifting currents and rainfall mean parts of the heavily industrial bay are cleaner than others and several race courses are just outside the bay in the open Atlantic.
“A lot of people have been talking about pollution,” Alastair Fox, head of competitions for the federation, said in an interview. “It would be nice not to be able to talk about that, but we all know that it’s there. We need to make sure that as much is done as possible to make a safe and healthy venue.”
Fox said the federation was making no health recommendations, although a physician contacted by reporters said that all sailors should be vaccinated for hepatitis A. Other waterborne diseases like diarrhea a can be picked up in dirty water.
Fox said many sailors were more worried about floating furniture, submerged trash bags and streams of flotsam fouling their rudders, than they were about human waste.
“Presuming the water quality is OK, as in the sewage levels, for us it’s imperative we have a clean field of play,” Fox said. “We can’t have a field of play with any objects in it that impact on the sailors’ ability to race.”
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