Olympic goals out­weigh risks of Rio wa­ters: ath­letes


Ath­letes have been dis­miss­ing the dan­gers of swimming in Rio de Janeiro’s dirty wa­ters, say­ing the risks are not great enough to al­ter their Olympic plans.

De­spite a warn­ing from a state en­vi­ron­men­tal agency that some Olympic venues are un­safe, triath­letes and para­triath­letes en­tered the wa­ters off Copaca­bana Beach Fri­day in an area con­sid­ered “un­fit” for swimming. They’ll con­tinue to com­pete this week­end in test events for next year’s games.

“We know we are ex­posed to viruses, maybe to health prob­lems later,” Costa Ri­can triath­lete Leonardo Cha­con said. “But in my case, I have in­vested so much to pre­pare my­self for this and I want this to hap­pen be­cause I can’t re­cu­per­ate this in­vest­ment any other way other than com­pet­ing and win­ning the points that I need to win.”

For many, the rea­son is sim­ple. There will be spots avail­able for the 2016 Olympics in Sun­day’s triathlon test event in Rio. And the test events pro­vide a unique op­por­tu­nity to get to know the en­vi­ron­ment.

“For me, the greater risk would be not know­ing the course,” said Amer­i­can para­triath­lete Pa­tri­cia Walsh, who was get­ting fa­mil­iar­ized with the venue that will be used in para­triathlon’s de­but in the games next year. “For any ath­lete, get­ting in the wa­ter, any wa­ter, has its own amount of risk. If I didn’t do that, I think it would be a greater risk than go­ing in the wa­ter.”

The Rio de Janeiro en­v­i­ron- men­tal agency said the wa­ter was de­clared un­fit based on the re­sults of a Mon­day wa­ter test. The same spot, which is near where triath­letes be­gan swimming, has been de­clared un­fit 10 pre­vi­ous times this year alone.

Of­fi­cials pub­licly in­sisted ath­letes were safe and stuck to the com­pe­ti­tion sched­ule. Later in the day, Ro­drigo Gar­cia, the sports di­rec­tor for the lo­cal Olympic or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, said that new, un­pub­lished wa­ter test re­sults show that the area is suit­able for the com­pe­ti­tion, but pro­vided no de­tails on the re­sults.

On Thurs­day, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­leased the re­sults of a five­month in­ves­ti­ga­tion that showed that Olympic venues are rife with dis­ease-caus­ing viruses and bac­te­ria.

Ex­treme wa­ter


is com­mon in Brazil, where the ma­jor­ity of sewage is not treated. Raw waste runs through open-air ditches to streams and rivers that feed the Olympic wa­ter sites.

The AP study showed that the spot where ath­letes were en­ter­ing the wa­ter on Copaca­bana Beach had a min­i­mal read­ing of over 2 mil­lion hu­man ade­n­ovirus per liter — that’s 2,000 times the read­ing that wa­ter ex­perts in the U.S. say would be con­sid­ered highly alarm­ing if seen on beaches in the U.S. or Europe.

Hu­man ade­n­ovirus mul­ti­ply in the in­testi­nal and res­pi­ra­tory tracts of peo­ple. These are viruses that are known to cause res­pi­ra­tory and di­ges­tive ill­nesses, in­clud­ing ex­plo­sive di­ar­rhea and vom­it­ing, but can also lead to more se­ri­ous heart, brain and other dis­eases.

But most ath­letes say they are still be­ing told the venues are safe by of­fi­cials in in­di­vid­ual sports, so there is no rea­son not to stick to the pro­gram. Of­fi­cials with the In­ter­na­tional Triathlon Union may con­sider push­ing for ex­panded test­ing of Rio’s wa­ters, said Shin Otsuka, ex­ec­u­tive board mem­ber out of ITU. Cur­rently, tests eval­u­ate bac­te­ria, but not viruses.

But the group is not sug­gest­ing ath­letes stay out of the wa­ter.

Ath­letes said that the con­di­tions of the wa­ter ap­peared bet­ter than they were ex­pect­ing. But wa­ter ex­perts and the gov­ern­ment’s own pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing of­fi­cials all note that sewage pol­lu­tion typ­i­cally isn’t some­thing that can be seen by the naked eye.

Although most ath­letes have been down­play­ing the dan­gers of swimming on Copaca­bana Beach, some teams have taken pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures.

Ital­ian team doc­tor Ste­fano Righetti said ath­letes went through pro­bi­otic ther­apy to pro­tect them against some of the dis­eases they could get by go­ing into the wa­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to Amer­i­can triath­lete Tommy Zaferes, team doc­tors said ath­letes could take “ex­tra pre­cau­tions” by tak­ing an­tibi­otics if they wanted, but no­body on the team had taken the med­i­ca­tion.

“You can get sick any­where, this is life,” Zaferes said. “The wa­ter qual­ity is bad in lots of places, it’s not re­ally a con­cern.”

Most ath­letes said they were be­ing care­ful with any open wounds they might have, and were wash­ing them­selves thor­oughly af­ter leav­ing the wa­ter, but noth­ing out of the or­di­nary.


Trash floats on the wa­ter next to a bar­rier in a canal at the Mare slum com­plex in Rio de Janeiro, Fri­day, July 31.

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