Pollution and the 2016 Olympic Games

Published on July 30th, 2015

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt
In November 2013, Scuttlebutt published how “Olympic sports federations will be monitoring efforts to clean up the polluted waters around Rio de Janeiro to prevent health risks to athletes at the 2016 Games.”

Now nearly two years later, this same story continues to make headlines, which the Associated Press has been diligent to remain a topic of the Games: Guanabara Bay, where the sailing events are to be held, is not a very clean body of water.

When International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach was quoted this week regarding the serious challenges over cleaning up the bay, the Associated Press pushed out their latest story today on the topic.

In this report, the Associate Press details how they conducted the first independent comprehensive testing at the Olympic sites, and the results were dangerously unhealthy. However, what I was looking for in their report was where or when the tests were conducted. I didn’t find it.

Now, I am not saying the water quality in Guanabara Bay is good. It is a well-documented polluted area, but test results can vary dramatically depending on where in the Bay the tests were taken, particularly since several sailing courses are not even in the Bay. Also, it is relevant whether the tests were taken during normal inflow or after a rainstorm. Just saying.

Interestingly, today the Reuters news agency published a report detailing how sailors were not worried about getting sick during the Rio Olympics. “We’ve spent a lot of time there the past few years and haven’t had any issues with the water,” said American Paige Railey.

Maybe Rio is caught in an Associated Press and Reuters battle.

While it is important that Rio de Janeiro get its environmental act together, and I’m sure it is of great assistance for there to be outside pressure on this initiative, it should be noted that the Snipe Worlds 2013, Military Games 2011, Star Worlds 2010, Pan Am Games 2007, or Finn Gold Cup 2004 were all held there without any reported incident.

Maybe it was a cover-up… I don’t know. Maybe it’s just better late than never. No argument that work needs to be done.

In a report today by NBC Sports, which for the sake of full disclosure has the broadcast rights to the Games, quoted U.S. Olympic Sailing managing director Josh Adams that the concern about the area is overstated, and that US Sailing continues to view the Olympic venue at Guanabara Bay as a safe place to sail.

“We’ve been training in Rio for several years without incident,” Adams said in a phone interview, one week before he travels to Rio to prepare for an Olympic test event with a full team of U.S. sailors. “We’ve gained valuable experience in Guanabara Bay. We’ve been monitoring the situation and encourage efforts to clean up the bay.”

Adams, who hasn’t been to Rio since last August’s test event, said he’s not aware of any U.S. sailors not wanting to compete at Guanabara Bay.

“There are concerns about water pollution in Guanabara Bay, as we’ve been well aware of for several years,” Adams said. “There’s really two issues. There’s the contents of the water, the actual water itself, and then there’s debris in the water. … They’re really two separate issues. We’re satisfied that organizers are working to control the amount of debris.”

Adams said there’s been no change since last August’s test event in Rio in the preventative measures U.S. sailors have been advised to take before traveling to Brazil or competing in Guanabara Bay.

“Our medical experts who we count on for their expertise in the subject, they made some recommendations, and we still follow those recommendations,” he said.

American Olympic medalist Morgan Reeser, now working with the US Sailing Team, is optimistic about the 2016 Games. “It is unfortunate that water quality has been the dominant discussion in the press, but when you are at the venue, all the negative talk about Rio goes away. There is no doubt in my mind that Rio 2016 can be the best sailing Olympic Games ever, with challenging conditions on a number of very different course areas all surrounded by stunning scenery.”

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