Olympic sailors disgusted by Rio’s foul waters

Olympic sailors on Saturday checked out the venue for the 2016
Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Many didn’t like what they saw.

“I’ve been sailing all over the world for 20 years now, and this
is the most polluted place I’ve ever been,” said Allan Norregaard,
a Danish bronze medalist in the 2012 London Olympics. “It’s really
a shame because it’s a beautiful area and city, but the water is so
polluted, so dirty and full of garbage.”

Rio’s local Olympic organizing committee has promised the
pollution will be cleaned up when the Olympics open in 2 1/2 years.
Government officials have pledged to reduce 80 percent of the
pollution flowing into the bay.

But the sailors doubt the problem can be fixed after festering
for decades, and many worry about their health. Environmentalists
call measures being taken “stopgap,” likely to mask the problem and
not cure it.

The Associated Press has documented over the last several weeks
that nearly 70 percent of Rio’s waste goes untreated into
surrounding waters. Famous beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema are
dirty. Untreated sewage pours into a lagoon bordering the Olympic
Park, the heart of the games.

Norregaard said that while sailing the last few days he’d seen
entire trees floating in the bay, doors, chunks of timber with
nails protruding, swollen mattresses and endless plastic bags.

Another sailor talked about a horse carcass in the
148-square-mile bay, which opens into the Atlantic just above Rio’s
famed Copacabana beach.

The Dane said the floating debris makes racing unfair and
dangerous. The other issue is the health risk with high levels of
fecal coliform bacteria in the water.

“I would definitely not swim in it,” Norregaard said. “We have
had a couple of incidents where people went in the water and came
up with red dots on their body. I don’t know what’s in the water,
but it’s definitely not healthy.”

Brazilian sailor Martine Soffiatti Grael grew up on the bay. Her
father, Torben Grael, is a five-time Olympic medalist, two of them
gold.

“For me since I was a child, it has only gotten worse,” said the
22-year-old, who hopes to qualify for the Rio Games. “The
government says it has lots of programs to clean the bay, but I
haven’t seen any progress being made.”

Thomas Bach, the new president of the International Olympic
Committee, is scheduled to be in Rio early next year to monitor
progress. The IOC is concerned about delays in organizing and
building venues, and pollution is another worry with costs for the
games put at $15 billion — a mix of public and private money.

“Of course, the water will not be clean as sailing in the
Caribbean,” Brazilian Robert Scheidt, who has won five Olympic
medals, said by phone to the AP. “I have never swum in there
(Guanabara). … Inside the bay I know it’s not the proper place to
swim. I’ve sailed there and never got any disease.”

Ian Barker, who won a silver medal for Britain in the 2000
Olympics and now coaches Ireland, said he’s sailed in 35 countries,
and this is the worst. He said sailors in training have had to stop
to disentangle their rudders from rubbish.

“It’s a sewer,” he said. “It’s absolutely disgusting. Something
has to be done about it. But you need the political will for these
things to happen and at the moment it’s not there.”