07/28 12:21 CDT Sailors to navigate dirty water in 1st Rio test
Sailors to navigate dirty water in 1st Rio test
AP Sports Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) --- 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. Some liken it to a sewer.
The water is filthy after years of untreated waste being poured into the
enclosed bay, a mess officials say will take at least a decade to fix.
From a distance, the venue is picturesque, framed between Sugarloaf Mountain
and the Christ the Redeemer statue. This is the image Rio organizers want the
world to see.
Yes, the venue will make good television. The conditions for the athletes?
That's 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."
But sail they will, starting Sunday with the first test event of the Rio Games.
The weeklong regatta will feature all 10 Olympic classes, with 216 boats and
321 competitors from 34 nations.
Rio dumps almost 70 percent of its untreated sewage into the 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.
But Rio's state environment secretary, Carlos Francisco Portinho, has
acknowledged 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 for the Olympics.
"I'm sorry that we did not use the games to get Guanabara Bay completely
clean," Paes said. But he added he was "not afraid for the health of any of the
athletes. It's going to be fine."
A series of stopgap remedies are being put in place --- rubbish boats to
retrieve floating debris, and barriers to stop sofas, wooden chairs and plastic
bags from entering the bay in the first place.
Rio state environment officials said in the first three months of the year,
three boats retrieved 33 tons of solid waste. Ten will be operating for the
The other problem is less visible: untreated human waste, which can't be
retrieved and leaves a stench all around the bay.
"At low tide, it smells like sewage water. It smells like a toilet," said
Austrian sailor Nikolaus Resch, who finished fourth at the 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 brown-black water, 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."
State environment officials say they monitor fecal coliforms monthly, but have
been doing it every two weeks since June 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 located just outside the
bay in the open Atlantic.
"A lot of people have been talking about pollution," Alastair Fox, head of
competitions for the sailing federation, said in an interview with The
Associated Press. "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 ISAF was making no health recommendations, although a physician
contacted by AP said all sailors should be vaccinated for hepatitis A. Other
waterborne diseases like diarrhea and gastroenteritis can be picked up in dirty
Fox said many sailors were more worried about floating furniture, submerged
trash bags and streams of flotsam fouling their rudders, than they were about
"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."
Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP