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.