Rio 2016: Is the Water That Bad? An On-The-Beach GSB Special Report


In the run up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next August, the sailing, rowing/canoeing and triathlon swim venues have all come under withering international criticism about bacteria, viruses and other pollutants posing potentially serious health risks to the athletes. Is that criticism warranted? Aaron Finder, a member of the Williams College (’17) Crew Team on a semester abroad in the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (Marvelous City), took a look at the situation up close and filed this guest post for GreenSportsBlog.

By Aaron Finder
There are two main questions regarding the water quality at the Rio 2016 Olympic rowing/canoeing, sailing and triathlon swim venues:

  1. Is the pollution at such a level that the athletes’ safety is at risk?
  2. Since the pollution is no doubt too high for city residents, will the Rio and Brazilian governments, along with private industry, make the necessary infrastructure investments to make Rio the London, the New York City, of South America?

This post will focus mainly on the first question, with some attention given to #2 at the close. While there is significant pollution in Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (Olympic rowing/canoeing), Guanabara Bay (Olympic sailing), and Copacabana Beach (Olympic triathlon swim), evidence I have gathered on the ground in Rio at all three event venues suggests the reality is more nuanced than media reports suggest.
Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas
At The Start 2

At the start… (Photo credit: USRowing.org)

While training at the Flamengo Boat Club on the Lagoa for the last month, I have not gotten sick, nor have I seen any evidence of dead fish remaining from a spring epidemic, likely caused either by pollution-related diminished oxygen levels (the government indicated it might have been due to sudden water temperature change). None of the 10-15 rowers I know here have suffered any instances of disease linked to lake contact. To be sure, these are Brazilian rowers who have been exposed to water-born diseases their entire lives and thus have likely built up antibodies. This is not the case for newly arrived foreigners. Still, given the pollution levels cited in stories by The Guardian and others, it seems miraculous that no locals have gotten sick.
A test of the venue’s viability for foreign rowers came a month ago with the World Junior Rowing Championships. From firsthand observation, the water on the course appeared clean and clear, with little to no smell, and the rowers seemed healthy. Felicity Dickson, a junior rower from Tigre, Argentina explained that, “we had been warned that it would be difficult, that we may have some problems,” (they took mineral water on board as a precaution), “but we haven’t experienced any.” Dickson also said, “there is no trash or floating things” that might disrupt racing. She noted she had heard about an Australian who had gotten a fever because she ingested water, though it’s not clear if lake contact caused the illness.
The Guardian also reported that an unusually high proportion of the US team fell ill, however there is not enough evidence to directly link this incident to lake contact, especially as this was the only team experiencing significant illness levels. A direct link to the lake would apply if many other teams reported this level of illness among their rowers, but this was not the case. That so many illnesses occurred on only one team may point to a common cause unique to that squad (i.e. ingesting contaminated food at a restaurant).
Per my question 2, the lake is still very polluted from raw sewage flowing into it from the surrounding neighborhoods. But, per question 1, that pollution is not enough to make rowers and canoeists sick or affect the fans. While that standard is admittedly low, it seems to me that The Lagoa will be fit to successfully host the Olympics next year, absent any major new problems.
Guanabara Bay:
Guanabara Bay

Sailboats on Guanabara (Photo credit: Aaron Finder)

Guanabara Bay looks to me (and to The New Yorker) to be the most polluted, and therefore the most challenging of the three venues. It was once so clean that whales used to come into the bay in the 16th and 17th centuries to give birth, making it popular for whaling. But that was then and this is now.
According to The Guardian, the city has only built one of eight promised treatment facilities on the bay in advance of the Games. Not surprisingly, the waters have been declared 99% likely to produce sickness in those who ingest 3 milliliters. Members and coaches of the Austrian sailing team were quoted as saying that exposure to the bay’s water significantly interrupted training.
Given all of this, the IOC, with a hard shove from the sailing community, is considering moving the sailing event away from the scenic Guanabara, to the open Atlantic Ocean.
The locals, not surprisingly, think the Guanabara is good enough. Larissa Backer, who works in environmental engineering at a private sanitation contractor for the government of the State of Rio de Janeiro said, “We know that the water is not appropriate, but we didn’t get sick, so I think it’s not necessary to move Olympic Sailing.” Asked about the risk to foreign sailors, Larissa’s husband, Renato Adamis, a member of the Guanabara Yacht Club and a frequent sailor there said, “the water is polluted, but… I’ve never heard about anyone who has gotten ill because of it.”
When the conversation turned to attempts to clean Guanabara, Larissa shared a story about an effort a few years ago, “Guanabara Limpa (Clean Guanabara)”, run by the Rio Department of Sanitation that, “improved the quality of water very much, but the program stopped,” without rationale. She mentioned a more recent program that sent boats to clean up plastic bags and other refuse, but the government stopped that too. Two years ago, the Bay appeared cleaner and clearer because of these programs, but it worsened once the programs stopped. Then the municipal and national governments started the now-stalled project of building the eight promised treatment facilities on Guanabara. This stop-start makes no sense given the Olympics are only a year away. One would think, with the world watching, the Rio and Brazilian governments would get this right, but, in the 6+ years since the Games were awarded, that’s not been the case.
So, as with the Lagoa (which, per Larissa, is in better shape than the Guanabara because, “they didn’t stop the [cleanup] program there,”), the local perception of the state of Guanabara is this: Though the water is polluted, it should overall be fit for sailing.
That point of view must be weighed against the biological data and the sickness reports by the Austrian sailing team. Remember, Renato, Larissa and their sailing friends have likely built up immunities over many years to viruses and bacteria to which international competitors simply have never been exposed.
It seems to me there are two ways to go:

  1. IOC keeps Olympic sailing at Guanabara: If so, international competitors will need to arrive earlier than normal for training to build up antibodies before the Games.
  2. Move Olympic sailing to the Atlantic Ocean: Specifically, the less-polluted ocean waters near Ipanema Beach would fit the bill. While officials are undoubtedly loath to move from the Guanabara in the shadow of spectacular Sugar Loaf, it’s not like the Ipanema vistas of the gorgeous Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) mountain and the Cristo Redentor are chopped liver. The less-polluted waters off of Copacabana could also host the sailing event, as TV viewers would see different yet terrific views of Sugar Loaf.

I would move the event, given the outcry from the sailing community. Baseball is not an Olympic event in 2016, but batting average applies here: Rio’s .125 (1 for 8) average, in terms of the sewage treatment plants up and running vs. planned, is telling—and it’s telling me it’s time to move the sailing to Ipanema. The IOC would still have its great vista, and would be respecting the wishes of the athletes.
Dois Irmaos

The waters off of Ipanema with Pedra Dois Irmãos in the distance, and the Lagoa on the right. (Photo credit: rio.rj.gov.br)

Copacabana Beach

Panorama of Copa beach (Photo credit: Aaron Finder)

The Guardian reported that Copacabana contains virus levels equivalent to those of raw sewage. That may be true, but I have gone swimming there, have been tossed by waves while body surfing and have yet to fall ill. Nor have my fellow foreign exchange students who swim there at least as often as I. Copacabana plays host to throngs of foreign tourists each day. If Copacabana indeed causes so much illness and smelled badly, wouldn’t tourism suffer? That seems not to be the case.
And when one considers that most of the Olympic triathlon swim will take place in the less polluted waters offshore, Copacabana beach should handle the event without incident.
History Repeating Itself?
It struck me while researching this article that, as the waters in and around Rio stand now, and probably will stand by the start of the Olympics, their pollution levels probably won’t be too different than those of some legendary rowing venues during the sport’s Golden Century (1850-1960ish).
Oxford and Cambridge have competed in The Boat Race on the River Thames for nearly 200 years. As recently as 1957, the waters of the London stretch were declared biologically dead (no living organism could survive in it for lack of oxygen,)—even the Rio Olympic venues haven’t sunk to that level. Since that time, the river has been cleaned up tremendously, is host to plenty of flora and fauna, and is a great rowing/canoeing venue.
On this side of the pond, Boston’s Charles River was so dirty back in the 60s that it became the inspiration for the popular Fenway Park anthem “Dirty Water”. Similar to today’s Rio, the drainage and sewage system pumped an estimated 1.7 billion gallons of sewage-rain mix directly into the river. Yet Harvard, along with other Boston universities, rowed on the river for over one hundred years. The world-famous Head of the Charles started in 1964–or, about twenty years before de-pollution commenced. Only recently has the river become clean enough to swim in again, as a direct result of concerted initiatives spearheaded by the EPA and the Charles River Watershed Association.
All of this is not to downplay the gravity of the water pollution in Rio. Water pollution is a serious, sometimes life-threatening issue, no matter where it exists. The above examples were simply an effort to shed some light on the viability of polluted venues for sailing, rowing and canoeing. The Thames and The Charles, before being cleaned up, were deemed “good enough”.
I think the Lagoa and Copacabana are also “good enough” but that the Guanabara is not.
Thing is, Brazilians need to say “good enough” is not nearly GOOD ENOUGH, and that the Brazilian government and that of the Rio Municipality must sprint hard to take every measure to clean the city’s waters. Why not hold Rio to a higher standard and push it to go the extra “green” mile over the next 11 months?
This is, of course, easier said than done, especially since the massive cleanup necessary hasn’t happened in the 8 years since Brazil won the right to host the World Cup and 6+ years since Rio won the Olympic bid, so why would we expect success in the next 11 months, a nanosecond in terms of planning a mega-event?
And, while Rio is the type of mega-city (12 million strong) that should host mega-events, let’s get real here: The city is celebrating its 450th birthday this year, yet its sanitation system seems like it is little improved since 1565! The bureaucracy is the popular culprit, not only for the seven unfinished waste plants and halted projects like “Guanabara Limpa”, but for the centuries of neglect of sewage infrastructure in this rapidly expanding metropolis–open sewage still flows into lakes and other bodies of water.
rio 450

Logo for Rio 450 (Credit: Rio 450 anos)

What’s the Proper Role of the IOC?
Should the IOC (and FIFA) award the Games (and World Cups) to polluted cities with ineffective bureaucracies, in hopes of making them cleaner? If so, the IOC should push finalist bid cities to start infrastructure development projects before the Games are awarded, providing some seed funding in the process. The final decision would be based, in part, on which city did the most effective job.
Can Brazilians Force Action on Clean Water from the Bottom Up?
Whatever the case, Brazil and Rio have their reputations on the line coming into 2016. Rio, of course, would’ve benefitted greatly from a solid successful green infrastructure effort in its iconic city, not just for the sake of the athletes and the Olympic spectacles, but, for the health of many of its people who live in sub-standard sanitary conditions. The athletes will be OK, especially if the sailing is moved from the Guanabara. There still is a Hail Mary-esque hope for infrastructure upgrades that would benefit the broader populace, but with August 2016, getting ever closer, already high skepticism is growing. Cariocas (nickname for Rio citizens) may dream of their city joining the ranks of the Londons, Tokyos and New Yorks of the world. But, if they simply lean on the time-honored Brazilian tradition of waiting, while making the best of what they have, then things likely won’t change much.
But, as the protests surrounding the 2014 World Cup, Rio 2016 and corruption scandals surrounding President Roussef demonstrate, perhaps the Cariocas rising voice will force action on infrastructure. Time will tell.
This much is true: If Rio truly wants to make its mark on the world stage as a developed city of the future, for all its citizens, the solution is in the water.

Please comment below!
Email us: lew@greensportsblog.com
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  1. Weakly researched, softball solutions. The IOC is the cause of this broken system, one that depends on which host city bid contains the biggest lies. And all they get is a weak, soft sentence?

  2. Very informative. Conclusions were very clear: the IOC needs to incorporate green and sustainable practices in the selection process and enforce these practices on the host cities. The IOC has opportunity (and obligation) to become eaders of green and sustainable practices on the world stage. Great post Aaron!

  3. Great post! It seems more balanced than the news reports I read about water quality and the upcoming Olympics in Rio. I hope Rio can accelerate work on improving water quality for the upcoming games next summer and keep it going way beyond 2016.

  4. Alan,
    Thanks for the reply! I hope you know that we’re on the same side here. But you’re right about the IOC. I mention in the piece that they need to do more to vet the bid cities in terms of infrastructure. Not mentioned in the piece—the IOC needs to do a much better job of vetting bid cities’ human rights records, environmental track record, etc. However, as we discovered with Blatter and FIFA, it is a fact that international sporting bodies and oftentimes the countries they choose have grave corruption problems entrenched in their bureaucracies. As I also mentioned, public outcry in Brazil may start to change the situation here. Unfortunately there likely are few viable drastic solutions left for Rio 2016. The systemic corruption and inefficiency in the Brazilian and Rio governments really limits things to, yes, those options that one might deem “weak”, as you say. I wish it could be different, but that’s what I see as the reality. But SOLVING the water infrastructure issue wasn’t even the main point of the article, its primary focus was the viability of the venues, to which I offered testimonies of locals, followed by a discussion of whether these low standards are really “good enough”. To this point, I also agreed with you, trying to push for more to be done, now and in the future, to make these venues more than just passable.

  5. Nice piece also incorporating rowing and triathlon. The sailing world has been following this story for sometime. Most recently a German sailor has been hospitalized in Berlin for a bacterial infection he believes he contracted at the most recent practice event: http://www.sail-world.com/Rio-2016—49er-medalist-hospitalised-after-Olympic-Test-event/137842
    Unfortunately it doesn’t look like there will be any changes made, which is appalling considering 25,000 liters of raw sewage per second is exiting into Guanabara Bay.

  6. My guess/hope is that, per Aaron’s piece, the IOC moves the sailing competition from the Guanabara. The NY Times reported on the story on Sunday: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/sports/sailor-falls-ill-after-rio-event.html?ref=sports

  7. […] 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 the AP […]

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

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