Virus-laden wa­ters

Olympic ath­letes to swim and boat in wa­ters teem­ing with Rio’s sewage


The wa­ters where Olympians will com­pete in swimming and boating events next sum­mer in South Amer­ica’s first games are rife with hu­man sewage and present a se­ri­ous health risk for ath­letes, as well as for visi­tors to the iconic beaches of Rio de Janeiro.

An As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion found dan­ger­ously high lev­els of viruses and bac­te­ria from sewage in venues where ath­letes will com­pete in the 2016 Olympic and Par­a­lympic wa­ter sports, though an Olympic of­fi­cial said Thurs­day there are no plans to press for author­i­ties to mon­i­tor for viruses, which many ex­perts con­sider the big­gest prob­lem.

In the first in­de­pen­dent com­pre­hen­sive test­ing for both viruses and bac­te­ria at the Olympic sites, the AP con­ducted four rounds of tests start­ing in March. The re­sults have alarmed in­ter­na­tional ex­perts and dis­mayed com­peti­tors train­ing in Rio, some of whom have al­ready have fallen ill with fev­ers, vom­it­ing and di­ar­rhea.

These ail­ments could knock an ath­lete out for days, po­ten­tially cur­tail­ing Olympics dreams and the years of hard train­ing be­hind them.

“This is by far the worst wa­ter qual­ity we’ve ever seen in our sail­ing ca­reers,” said Ivan Bu­laja, a coach for the Aus­trian team, which has spent months train­ing on the Gua­n­abara Bay. “I am quite sure if you swim in this wa­ter and it goes into your mouth or nose that quite a lot of bad things are com­ing in­side your body.”

Sailor David Hussl has al­ready fallen ill.

“I’ve had high tem­per­a­tures and prob­lems with my stom­ach,” Hussl said. “It’s al­ways one day com­pletely in bed and then usu­ally not sail­ing for two or three days.”

Wa­ter pol­lu­tion has long plagued Brazil’s ur­ban ar­eas, where most sewage isn’t col­lected, let alone treated. In Rio, much of the waste runs through open-air ditches to fetid streams and rivers that feed the Olympic wa­ter sites and blight the city’s pic­ture post­card beaches.

But of­fi­cial test­ing in Brazil mea­sures only bac­te­ria — not the viruses that ex­perts say cause the ma­jor­ity of ill­ness re­lated to recre­ational wa­ter ac­tiv­ity.

Dr. Richard Bud­gett, the med­i­cal di­rec­tor for the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, said af­ter see­ing the AP find­ings that the IOC and Brazil­ian author­i­ties would stick to their pro­gram of test­ing only for bac­te­ria to de­ter­mine whether the wa­ter is safe, as that is the ac­cepted norm glob­ally.

“We’ve had re­as­sur­ances from the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion and oth­ers that there is no sig­nif­i­cant risk to ath­lete health,” he told the AP on the side­lines of an IOC meet­ing in Malaysia.

He went on to say that “there will be peo­ple push­ing for all sorts of other tests, but we fol­low the ex­pert ad­vice and of­fi­cial ad­vice on how to mon­i­tor wa­ter ef­fec­tively.”

Bud­gett’s ad­vice for ath­letes who will com­pete in the virus­laden wa­ters?

“Wash­ing your hands is an ex­tremely im­por­tant part of re­duc­ing the risk of in­fec­tion of any sort,” he said. “So nor­mal hy­giene, nor­mal rules that ap­ply to any­one who’s sail­ing or swimming or row­ing would ap­ply. Just re­in­force those.”

Wa­ter ex­perts have said that such safe­guards aren’t enough to pro­tect ath­letes who get drenched dur­ing com­pe­ti­tions and have an al­most cer­tain chance of be­ing in­fected by the viruses en­ter­ing their mouths, nose, cuts on skin or any open­ing of the body.

Brazil­ian author­i­ties pledged that a ma­jor over­haul of the city’s wa­ter­ways would be among the Olympics’ most sig­nif­i­cant lega­cies. But the stench of raw sewage still greets trav­ellers ar­riv­ing at Rio’s in­ter­na­tional air­port. Prime beaches re­main de­serted be­cause the surf is thick with pu­trid sludge, and pe­ri­odic die-offs leave the Olympic lake lit­tered with rot­ting fish.

Brazil­ian of­fi­cials in­sist the wa­ters will be safe, but the AP test­ing over five months found not one venue fit for swimming or boating, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­na­tional ex­perts, who say it’s too late for a cleanup.

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