Sailors and other athletes preparing for the Olympics have been training for months in contaminated waters where the Rio Games will be held. Many believe moving events now would put them at a disadvantage, even though water-quality tests analyzed by the Associated Press show athletes have a high chance of being exposed to viruses.
The AP on Thursday published the findings of a five-month study that looked specifically at viruses present in water being used for rowing, sailing, wind surfing, triathlon and open-water swimming. The tests concluded athletes risk exposure to viruses that could make them too ill to compete. In some tests, disease-causing viruses measured up to 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a southern California beach.
Dr Richard Budgett, medical director for the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee, said local organizers had followed testing procedures established by the World Health Organization that focus on testing for bacteria – but not for viruses. The IOC made no plans to push for venue changes, but said it would continue to monitor water quality tests.
“We’ve had reassurance from the World Health Organization and others that there is no significant risk of athlete health,” Budgett said.
“Clearly there are going to be some individuals who have become infected, but it’s a matter of looking at the risk realistically and realizing there are going to be a lot of competitions on these venues,” he said. “We’ve got to hold things in perspective.”
Athletes, coaches and sport administrators contacted by AP had difficulty judging the risk presented in AP’s research, and did not alter plans to compete in upcoming test events.
Fabiana Beltrame of Brazil, a three-time Olympic rower, trained at dawn on the lake.
“I have been rowing here for 10 years and nothing has ever happened to me,” she said. But she said she was “worried” with athletes from around the globe arriving in August for Olympic test events.
“We prepare ourselves during four years to compete and be at our best on the day of the competition, and we can lose everything because of the precarious water conditions,” she said.
Peter Cookson, high-performance director for Rowing Canada, said it was unclear how rowers could avoid the viruses.
“I’m not aware what the organizing committee can do,” Cookson said. “I am at a loss on that one. It’s not a short-term solution to fix the water quality, that’s a long-term solution that Brazil has to deal with.”
The beach resort city of Buzios – about a two-hour drive north of Rio – wasted no time in offering itself as an alternate sailing venue to polluted, trash-strewn Guanabara Bay.
In a statement, an association representing hotels said the city “was prepared and available to host the event under any conditions”.
Sailing and rowing are often far from the main Olympic venues. This time they’re not, and sailors are excited to be center stage.
Guanabara Bay and the Rodrigo de Freitas lake, despite the pollution, will look perfect on television, particularly once floating debris is retrieved. Guanabara is framed by Sugarloaf Mountain, the famous outcropping where the bay flows into the Atlantic.
The lake sits in the heart of Rio, a glimmering pool under the towering Christ the Redeemer statue.
Gary Jobson, a former president of US Sailing who is now a vice-president on the executive committee of the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), said officials haven’t heard any calls to move the Olympic regatta.
“None of the teams have asked to move. All the national authorities, not one of them has said: ‘We need to move.’ No competitor is making noise about this. Last year they had a regatta there at this exact same time and all the reports were it was OK. There were no problems.”
Many sailing teams have been coming to train for over a year and know the course. Moving now would mean learning a new area.
Aiko Saito, manager for Japan’s sailing team, said she did not want to move.
“Change the venue – what do you mean?” she asked. “We have done a lot of work here so I hope the Olympics are happening here. We don’t want to move.”
She said this was her third visit to Rio, and sailors have learned to cope with water conditions.
“We are a little bit careful with cuts and small injuries,” she said. “We don’t leave it, we just clean it. That’s one thing we are little bit cautious. We wash our hands, our eyes.”
Wind surfer Blanca Manchon of Spain termed the water in Guanabara “really bad”.
“I’m like (spitting) all the time when the water washes on me,” she said. “It’s the worst place. I’ve never seen a place so dirty. The water is black.”
Curtis Jordan, the high-performance director of US Rowing, said it’s difficult to judge the severity of the pollution problem, since every Olympics seem to face dire problems – only to pull it off. This will be Jordan’s eighth Olympics.
“This is like the boy crying wolf,” Jordan said. “As serious as this is, there hasn’t been one Olympics I’ve gone to when there hasn’t been some death-defying aspect or disaster.”