The Promise Rio Couldn’t Keep

Published on February 18th, 2016

Rio de Janeiro’s bid for the Summer Games featured an official commitment to cleaner waters. But with less than six months to go, trash and contamination continue to lurk. Report by Bonnie D. Ford for ESPN…

In August, barriers installed across more than a dozen of Rio’s dying rivers will hold back garbage that otherwise might drift into the paths of Olympic sailors. A fleet of boats will patrol to keep debris from snagging on a rudder or centerboard and costing someone a medal. Some of the untreated human waste that has long fouled Rio’s beaches and docks and picturesque lagoon will be diverted from competitive venues so the athletes who have to navigate them need not worry.

This is what has been promised, anyway. This is the latest stopgap wave of promises made when it was clear the first wave wouldn’t be kept.

A brilliant, lowering sun silhouettes the irregular profile of the mountains behind Martine Grael as she stands on a beach strewn with sailboats after a day of racing at an international regatta on Guanabara Bay and voices her doubts. Grael, 25, is a newly minted member of the 2016 Brazilian Olympic team, the daughter of a gold medalist, a true child of these waters. She speaks with the sad conviction of someone watching a loved one suffer.

“It’s very clear that water treatment and education are the biggest focus on cleaning the water, and I haven’t seen almost anything being done in that way,” Grael says. “I think Rio has a very big coastline and people love to go to the beach, but nobody seems to care that the beach is getting dirtier and dirtier.

“The water’s still dirty and it stinks some days, and, I don’t know. You don’t need to study a lot to understand that it’s not going well.”

Rio’s final 2009 bid book included a seven-year commitment to tackling an environmental disaster that took decades to create. The widespread absence of modern sanitation was spun into an asset by the leaders of Rio’s campaign. The direct, flattering appeal to the International Olympic Committee was this: Bestow the transformative power of your three-week event on our city. We need the Games more than Chicago does, more than Madrid.

The bid language stated that 80 percent of overall sewage would be collected and treated by 2016, and it pledged the “full regeneration” of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where rowing and sprint canoe/kayak events will be held.

The same bid document asserted that the Brazilian economy was stable and called funding for Rio 2016 “secure.” Six months shy of the opening ceremony, however, recession reigns, inflation rages in double digits and the Games budget has taken a significant hit. Brazil’s public health system, already reeling, now must cope with the burgeoning Zika virus epidemic. – Full story

Editor’s note: Unlike most reports on the pollution, which have largely come from Rio-based Associated Press writers who have used the Olympics to heighten awareness on a long-standing local problem, this ESPN report comes from the context of the competition and the athletes. It is refreshing.

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