Can Rio Make 2016 Olympic Sailing Venue Fit for Humans by Next August?


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.

Guanabara Bay

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.

rodrigo de freitas

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.

Please comment below!
Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
Tweet us: @greensportsblog


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  1. I am no expert but I do not believe at all that all the universities in Brazil combined can make that water healthy for athletes. The IOC is right there with FIFA in how much they care for money and how little they care for the athletes. Disgraceful.
    Thanks to Greensportsblog for letting is know!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dr. Bink. Yeah, I’m doubtful the universities can make an impact in such a short time–ergo, the Hail Mary reference. I’m glad the Sailing Federation is standing firm on choosing athlete safety, despite the allure of greater exposure by being in the shadow of Sugarloaf. Of course the bigger tragedy is that the millions of people in the Rio area, especially those without means, live with this kind of pollution. Perhaps the bright light shone by the Olympics will lead to some improvements. Again, I wouldn’t bet on it but at least hold out hope.

  3. So sad. I saw (and smelled) similarly polluted water in Argentina. I hope that the Olympics continue to shine a light on this problem instead of finding a way to gloss over it.

  4. Thanks Nichole. A thought just popped into my head: Given that the problem of fetid water transnational in nature (Brazil, Argentina, probably Uruguay) my guess, I think the national soccer teams of the 3 countries should play a mini-tournament…Maybe add USA to mix to make it an even number. Games in the 3 countries, proceeds go to non-profit or NGO like WHO (not gov’t because there wouldn’t be trust) expressly for cleanup of these waterways. Crazy? THAT would be a positive evocation of the power of Green and Sports!

  5. […] pollution at the sailing, rowing and triathlon swimming venues,) will have a high profile at the Olympics in Rio in August. In fact, I’m predicting that, whether it is Hershkowitz or someone else, […]

  6. […] smell) levels of Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, host of Olympic Sailing this August# (click here and here for links to prior GSB stories). Despite independent testing of The Guanabara conducted by […]

  7. […] the awful conditions at the outdoor water sports venues—sailing, rowing and triathlon swim. Click here, here and here for a “Dirty (Rio) […]

  8. […] with hazardous chemicals, municipal garbage, dead fish and even dead human bodies contaminating Guanabara Bay and the other waterways to be used by Olympic athletes would close any beach in North America or […]

  9. […] Not too shabby in my book. Now, speaking of Rio, much was said and written, including in GreenSportsBlog, about the horrible environmental conditions of the sailing, rowing and outdoor swim venues. What […]

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