RIO DE JANEIRO — Sailing’s world governing body said Saturday it does not plan to conduct viral testing in Rio de Janeiro’s polluted Guanabara Bay, the venue for sailing and wind surfing at next year’s Olympics.
Dr. Nebojsa Nikolic, top medical official for the International Sailing Federation, told The Associated Press ”we will certainly not do this” until the World Health Organization comes out with what he called a ”firm statement.”
The WHO told AP in an interview Friday it ”would support additional viral testing to further inform the risk assessment by authorities.”
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The issue of increased testing for Rio’s polluted waterways — and what to do about it — has drawn attention since an independent five-month analysis by AP published July 30 showed dangerously high levels of viruses from human sewage at all Rio Olympic water venues.
Dr. Nikolic agreed with the position taken earlier in the week by Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi, who said WHO guidelines called for only bacterial testing. Dr. Nikolic said experts in the field had not agreed on what viruses to test for, and how to test.
”This is not a simple question,” Dr. Nikolic said. ”Every diagnostic method has its own value and experts are still not agreed what to do, or how to do it.”
More than 330 sailors and wind surfers from 50 nations are in Rio for an Olympic test event that opened Saturday. They know the water is polluted, and sailors over the last several years have repeatedly called the bay ”an open sewer.”
But most this time seem determined to compete, ignore the risks and zero-in on a chance for an Olympic gold medal.
”It’s scary, but we don’t focus on it (the pollution),” American wind surfer Farrah Hall said. ”If we’re out there thinking we were going to get sick every time we sail, we probably would get sick because we are thinking about it too hard.”
Governing body the ISAF is adamant about racing in Guanabara Bay, which offers a postcard setting with Rio’s famous Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. The location puts sailing in the heart of the city, offers ISAF possible commercial benefits, and will delight television rights holders that pay billions to the International Olympic Committee.
”The fact is, the sailors all want to be here,” said Alastair Fox, the head of competitions for ISAF. ”It’s a rarity for us in the Olympics. We’re always two hours away, or two hours by plane. So we really want to have it in the heart of the Olympic environment.”
Peter Sowrey, the CEO of ISAF, ruled out moving the event to the nearby resort of Buzios, about two hours north of Rio.
”We’re really not thinking about Buzios,” he said. ”They’ve written us, to my president and me. Really, it’s a `no’. We’re focused on Rio.”
The AP commissioned Brazilian virologist Fernando Spilki of Feevale University to test Rio’s waters for three types of human adenovirus, as well as rotavirus, enterovirus and bacterial fecal coliforms.
The viruses can cause stomach and respiratory ailments that could easily knock an athlete out of competition. The viruses can also cause more serious, though rarer, ailments including heart and brain inflammation.
An expert who examined the data for AP said it was almost certain athletes would be infected by viruses. That doesn’t automatically mean an athlete will fall ill. That depends on numerous factors, including the immune system.