Filthy Rio water aside, sailing gets rare Olympic spotlight

Filthy Rio water aside, sailing gets rare Olympic spotlight

Published Aug. 14, 2015 7:42 p.m. ET

The filthy water in Guanabara Bay might make some sailors at next year's Rio de Janeiro Olympics lose their lunch.

Then again, it could be the scenery that takes their breath away.

Yachtsmen and women have no choice but to sail on the polluted bay, which an Associated Press study showed has dangerously high levels of disease-causing viruses.

The U.S. team has spent considerable time on Guanabara Bay in recent years, working to develop confidence while trying to forget the embarrassing shutout in the medals table at the London Games.


Pathogens and viruses aside, sailing gets a rare chance to be at the center of the games. Usually, the dinghies are dispatched to some remote patch of ocean hundreds of miles from the host city.

Not so in Rio, where the International Sailing Federation is hosting its second test event Saturday through Aug. 22.

There will be three courses on Guanabara Bay and three just outside on the Atlantic Ocean.

''When you're sailing on the inside courses, you're looking up at the city, the buildings and Christ the Redeemer at the top looking over everybody,'' said Josh Adams, managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing. ''It's quite beautiful too, these round, natural features to the land. It's been a while since sailing has been this close to the center of the Olympic Games competition.''

So close that the sailors and coaches get to stay in the athletes' village, a rarity.

Here are some things to watch out for when sailors take over Guanabara Bay this August and next.

RACING & RUM: The course for the medals races will be off Flamingo Beach in prevailing wind, with the windward mark right under Sugarloaf Mountain. ''There's no other way to put it, but it will be typical Rio in that there will be high-stakes racing for Olympic medals going on while there's a big party on Flamingo Beach,'' Adams said. One of the outside courses is off Copacabana Beach. ''It's going to be a unique games,'' Adams said.

ANCHORS AWEIGH: The U.S. team has invested in a training base at the Navy Club in Niteroi, about five miles across the bay from Rio. ''We're spending a lot of time training and racing on the race course where the Olympic Games will be held and that kind of experience gives an athlete a lot of confidence,'' Adams said. ''We will continue to be mindful of the water pollution situation, but right now, from our experience, it's proving to be a good place to sail.''

SHE DOES WHAT?? Paige Railey of Clearwater, Florida, who sails in the Laser Radial class, said she's sailed on Guanabara Bay several times and has no concerns with the water. She said she's even gone wakeboarding and swimming there, and has eaten fish from the bay. ''I don't have any fear about the water at all, actually,'' she said. Railey, a 2012 Olympian who won a gold medal at the Pan Am Games this summer, said U.S. Sailing and the USOC do a good job in preparing sailors, including making sure they're up to date with their shots and are careful about not ingesting water. ''I have spent a lot of time there sailing,'' she said. ''I've seen a drastic improvement with the water quality and I haven't had any issues with it.''

THEY'RE GOING TO GET WET: The 49er skiff is the fastest and most exciting Olympic class, and capsizes come with the territory. ''Eventually you do go in the water,'' said Peter Burling, 24, a silver medalist in London who has taken over as skipper of Emirates Team New Zealand in the America's Cup. ''You don't want to ingest the water,'' said Burling, who with crew Blair Tuke is making a fourth trip to Rio. ''Obviously the content of the water is not the nicest to look at, but it doesn't affect sailing that much. We're just trying to get on with it and race.''

PERSPECTIVE: The last time sailing enjoyed the Olympic spotlight was Sydney, with racing on the harbor and just outside the Sydney Heads. The Soling match racing course was framed by the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge. For the 1936 Olympics, sailing was held in Kiel on the Baltic Sea, some 220 miles from Berlin. The Montreal, Moscow, Seoul, Atlanta, Beijing and London games also had far-flung sailing venues.


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