Some US rowers fall ill at 2016 Olympics test event


Thir­teen rowers on the 40-mem­ber U.S. team came down with stom­ach ill­ness at the World Ju­nior Row­ing Cham­pi­onships — a trial run for next sum­mer’s Olympics — and the team doc­tor said she sus­pected it was due to pol­lu­tion in the lake where the com­pe­ti­tion took place.

The event took place amid ris­ing con­cerns about the wa­ter qual­ity at venues for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, now less than a year away.

The Amer­i­cans were by far the hard­est hit at the re­gatta that con­cluded over the week­end, with re­ports of vom­it­ing and di­ar­rhea. Other teams in the com­pe­ti­tion re­ported some ill­nesses, ac­cord­ing to World Row­ing, the sport’s gov­ern­ing body, but those were about as ex­pected at an event that fea­tured more than 500 young rowers.

On July 30, The As­so­ci­ated Press pub­lished an in­de­pen­dent anal­y­sis of wa­ter qual­ity that showed high lev­els of viruses and, in some cases, bac­te­ria from hu­man sewage in all of Rio’s Olympic and Par­a­lympic wa­ter venues, in­clud­ing the Ro­drigo de Fre­itas La­goon, where the row­ing com­pe­ti­tion took place.

U.S. coach Su­san Fran­cia, a two-time Olympic gold-medal rower, said in an in­ter­view with the AP that 13 ath­letes and four staff mem­bers — in­clud­ing her­self — suf­fered var­i­ous gas­troin­testi­nal symp­toms dur­ing the team’s two weeks of train­ing in Rio.

Dr. Kathryn Ack­er­man, the U.S. team physi­cian, said ath­letes from sev­eral other coun­tries stayed in the same ho­tel as the Amer­i­cans, but did not seem to get as sick as her rowers.

“I don’t know if it was the wa­ter bot­tles in the boats, or hy­giene pre­cau­tions that some ath­letes are re­ally good about and oth­ers weren’t,” she said.

Of­fi­cials did not rule out Amer­i­cans could have got­ten food or drink­ing wa­ter.

“We’re not re­ally sure. My per­sonal feel­ing is, I think it’s from the lake,” Ack­er­man said.

Fran­cia said she lacked the data and that the ill from in­for­ma­tion to di­rectly blame the ill­ness on the venue, but added: “It just doesn’t seem nor­mal.”

She warned ath­letes com­ing for the Olympics that “you should know when you’re com­ing next year that you have to be smart about how you are pre­par­ing.”

Fran­cia said the U.S. team had taken pre­cau­tions about com­pet­ing in the pol­luted lake be­neath Rio’s pic­turesque Christ the Redeemer statue, “but maybe we were not as strict in en­forc­ing them as we should have been from the be­gin­ning.”

“As soon as kids started go­ing down, we were bleach­ing oar han­dles, we were im­me­di­ately wash­ing hands af­ter com­ing off the wa­ter,” she said. “Other coun­tries didn’t al­low wa­ter bot­tles at all. Other coun­tries had wa­ter bot­tles in zip-locked bags.”

US Row­ing, which over­sees the sport in the United States, said it is in­ves­ti­gat­ing what sick­ened the ath­letes, who range in age from 16-19. None are likely to be Olympians next year.

Row­ing of­fi­cials will de­brief the ath­letes when they re­turn to the U.S., likely through the rest of the week. They will talk to the ath­letes, re­view pro­to­cols for clean­li­ness.

Ack­er­man said she be­came wor­ried when one U.S. boat tipped over in the lake, although the ath­lete who got thrown into the wa­ter was not among those who be­came ill.

“Ob­vi­ously we were all con­cerned be­cause we know the wa­ter’s pol­luted,” she added.

‘Travel symp­toms’

A spokesman for the Rio or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee on Mon­day at­trib­uted Amer­i­can team ill­nesses to “class travel symp­toms” and said an event doc­tor treated eight Amer­i­cans, three Bri­tons and three Aus­tralians for symp­toms in­clud­ing di­ar­rhea.

The Amer­i­cans’ ex­pe­ri­ence is al­most cer­tain to raise more con­cerns for the Olympics. About 10,500 ath­letes will at­tend the Sum­mer Games, and 1,400 will par­tic­i­pate in row­ing, sail­ing, triathlon, ca­noe­ing and dis­tance swimming in the wa­ters around Rio.

“You don’t want to see ath­letes in the boat-park vom­it­ing,” Fran­cia said, re­count­ing that the com­peti­tor she saw get sick was not an Amer­i­can. One of the U.S. rowers did faint in a din­ing area, she added.

The AP anal­y­sis of wa­ter be­gan in March and was per­formed by noted Brazil­ian vi­rol­o­gist Fer­nando Spilki, co­or­di­na­tor of the en­vi­ron­men­tal qual­ity pro­gram at Fee­vale Univer­sity in south­ern Brazil. It showed dan­ger­ously high lev­els of viruses from sewage in all Olympic venues. The sam­ples were checked for three types of hu­man ade­n­ovirus, as well as ro­tavirus, en­terovirus and fe­cal co­l­iforms.

These are viruses that are known to cause di­ges­tive and res­pi­ra­tory ill­nesses, in­clud­ing ex­plo­sive di­ar­rhea and vom­it­ing, but can also in rarer cases lead to more se­ri­ous heart, brain and other dis­eases, such as hep­ati­tis A.

The AP test­ing, which will con­tinue through the Olympics, also checked for bac­te­rial fe­cal co­l­iforms — which at times dur­ing the study peaked at the Olympic lake to 10 times the ac­cept­able limit for sec­ondary con­tact per Brazil­ian reg­u­la­tions.

In two sep­a­rate emailed state­ments fol­low­ing the AP study, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion af­firmed it was ad­vis­ing the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee “to widen the sci­en­tific base of in­di­ca­tors to in­clude viruses.” The WHO un­der­scored that it’s ac­tu­ally up to the lo­cal Olympic or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee in Rio to or­der that vi­ral test­ing be done.

How­ever, in an emailed state­ment Mon­day, the or­ga­ni­za­tion re­versed course and said that “WHO has not and will not is­sue an `of­fi­cial rec­om­men­da­tion’ on vi­ral test­ing.”

The lo­cal com­mit­tee has not re­sponded to re­peated re­quests for in­for­ma­tion on whether it will or­der the vi­ral test­ing.

Matt Smith, the head of World Row­ing, said he wants the IOC and lo­cal or­ga­niz­ers to ask the state of Rio de Janeiro to do vi­ral test­ing in the run-up to the Olympics.

Lack of Test­ing Equip­ment

How­ever, the Rio state en­vi­ron­ment agency does not have the equip­ment or the trained per­son­nel to carry out vi­ral test­ing of wa­ter, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal virol­o­gists. The agency con­firmed it only does bac­te­rial test­ing, since that is all Brazil­ian law, like that of most na­tions in­clud­ing the U.S., de­mands.

Smith said the row­ing, sail­ing, swimming, ca­noe­ing and triathlon fed­er­a­tion could unite to test if the Rio state of­fi­cials de­clined to.

“If they don’t agree, or don’t want to, we will dis­cuss to­gether what to do and prob­a­bly fi­nance our own test,” Smith said.

Peter Sowrey, the CEO of sail­ing’s world gov­ern­ing body ISAF, told AP he would seek in­de­pen­dent test­ing for viruses “to un­der­stand ex­actly what we are deal­ing with.”

Sail­ing will take place in Gua­n­abara Bay, row­ing and ca­noe­ing in Ro­drigo de Fre­itas, and triathlon and swimming off Copaca­bana Beach.

Peter Cook­son, the high- per­for­mance di­rec­tor for the Cana­dian team, said he had “ab­so­lutely no prob­lems” at the re­gatta. But he had ques­tions about risks.

“I’m not an ex­pert in viruses. We’ve never en­coun­tered this,” he said. “I’m strug­gling with what the right an­swer is to pro­tect the rowers.”

Rio Mayor Ed­uardo Paes and IOC mem­ber Car­los Nuz­man, who heads the lo­cal or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, ap­peared at the venue over the week­end.

Paes, who has re­peat­edly ac­knowl­edged that Rio “missed an op­por­tu­nity” to clean its wa­ters for the Olympics, said he would fol­low the IOC’s lead on vi­ral test­ing.

“The IOC needs to tell us that we need to,” he said. “The Brazil­ian law doesn’t tell us to do that (vi­ral test­ing). They just tell us to do the stan­dards of the Brazil­ian law. And if the IOC wants it, we’ll do it.”

Swiss rower Katharina Strahl, not­ing that the lake was “smelly in a few places,” was able to joke about the pol­lu­tion.

“I don’t think in this lake they’ll be throw­ing the coxswain into the wa­ter,” she said.

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