The Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil take place just one year from tomorrow, August 5, 2016. With the Games fast approaching, the environmental issue taking center stage is neither recycling, nor greater use of mass transit (both important subjects, btw). Rather, it is water, badly polluted by viruses from sewage at the sailing, rowing and canoeing venues. GreenSportsBlog explores the problem and what Rio 2016 can do to clean these waterways in a year’s time.
With the awarding of the 2022 Winter Olympics to (natural snow-less) Beijing on Friday, the plan here at GreenSportsBlog was to move on from the Green Olympics storyline, at least for awhile. After all, last week was Green Olympics Week at GSB: We not only covered the vote for the 2022 host city but also took an early look at the burghs (Budapest, Hamburg, Paris, Rome) bidding for the 2024 Summer Games from a green perspective. On to something new…
Not so fast!
To paraphrase Al (Michael Corleone) Pacino in Godfather III, “Just when we thought we could leave Green Olympics, they drag us back in!” And the magnet is serious: Dangerous water pollution levels at the sailing, rowing and canoeing venues in Rio, only one year out from the opening ceremonies.
How serious? An Associated Press analysis of water quality reported in The Guardian on July 30 revealed “dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage in several Olympic and Paralympic venues.” The results of the first comprehensive independent testing of the Olympic water sports sites “alarmed international experts and drew condemnation from athletes training in Rio, some of whom have already fallen ill with fevers, vomiting and diarrhea.”
In another A.P. story, which appeared in YAHOO! News on August 2 and was written by Stephen Wade, the IOC appeared to have its head in the (polluted) sand as spokesman Mark Adams offered that “Rio authorities are following World Health Organization (WHO) testing standards and, according to the WHO, there is no significant risk to athletes.”
Perhaps that’s because the testing Adams referred to, endorsed by the IOC and the Brazilian government, measures bacteria only and not viruses.
Lack of virus measurement seems likely to change–and quickly, given the tight timetable to the start of the Games and because of the seriousness of the problem. The WHO, in a statement to the A.P., said that it has now “advised the IOC to widen the scientific base of indicators to include viruses.”
Those virus test results will likely not be pretty: Most sewage in Brazil goes untreated. Raw waste runs through open-air ditches to streams and rivers that flow into the Olympic water sites. Thus, Olympic athletes at the outdoor water sports venues are, per the A.P. “almost certain to come into contact with disease-causing viruses that in some tests measured up to 1,700 times the level (my emphasis) of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.”
The outdoor water sports venues are:
- Guanabara Bay, site of the sailing events. Only one of eight treatment facilities Brazil promised to build to filter out much of the sewage and household trash from flowing into Guanabara Bay is up and running.
Debris floating in Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro, scheduled site for the 2016 Summer Olympics sailing competition. Authorities are considering moving the competition to the cleaner open Atlantic Ocean. (Photo credit: Matthew Stockman, Getty Images)
- Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, home of canoeing and rowing, thick with putrid sludge and rotting fish.
Rowers practice amidst dead fish in Rodrigo de Freitas Lake in Rio, host canoeing and rowing at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. (Photo credit: Associated Press)
- Copacabana Beach, scene of the swimming portion of the Olympic triathlon. The independent A.P. test saw virus levels roughly equivalent to that seen in raw sewage.
A.P’s testing will continue throughout the next year, so this story will not go away.
The question is: What can the Brazilian and Rio governments, as well as the IOC, do to improve the situation?
One solution under consideration is for the sailing events to be moved from Guanabara Bay into the open Atlantic Ocean. That would solve the sailing-in-polluted-waters problem, but doing so would lose the optics of the Sugarloaf Mountain backdrop. It sounds like the folks who run sailing want to go the open ocean route, albeit reluctantly. Peter Sowrey, Chief Executive of the International Sailing Federation told the AP that, while “the backdrop of Rio is an amazing backdrop, and will do something for the sport of sailing…we’re not going to sacrifice health for the sake of good pictures and good TV.”
A potential Hail Mary-type solution was announced today by Luiz Fernando Pezão, Governor of Rio de Janeiro, and reported in the New York Times. He signed a deal with several Brazilian universities and research institutions to develop a plan for cleaning up Guanabara Bay in the next 12 months. Details were not made available. No mention was made of cleanup plans for Rodrigo de Freitas Lake or Copacabana Beach.
GreenSportsBlog will cover this and other environmentally-related Rio 2016 stories in the run up to the Games.
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