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Flint athletes come to Hamilton, water crisis continues at home

The CANUSA games competition, hosted each year by Hamilton or Flint, Mich. is bringing young athletes to the city once again. Concerns about Flint's ongoing water crisis prevented the games from being hosted in the Michigan city this year, despite it being their turn.

The 59th annual CANUSA games to be held this weekend in Hamilton

The CANUSA games kick off Friday in Hamilton. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

While Hamilton hasn't always been known for having Canada's cleanest drinking water, hundreds of athletes in town from Flint, Mich. can, for the first time in a long time, turn on city taps and drink deeply.

This weekend, nearly 350 athletes from Flint will be in town to take part in this year's CANUSA games as their city still recovers from a lingering and dangerous water crisis. 

It hasn't been easy on the athletes. Zameer Wallace, a 15-year-old basketball player from Flint told the CBC that for the past few years he's had to bring his own water to practices and minimize the amount of showers he takes with city water.

He said his family has been brushing their teeth and cooking with bottled water since the crisis began.

Meanwhile, last week, six more Michigan state employees were charged with crimes for their roles in the crisis.

It started in April 2014 when, under the control of a state-appointed manager, city officials cut ties with Flint's former water source, the Detroit Water and Sewerage system, which took water from Lake Huron.

Instead, the city hooked up its municipal water system to the Flint River. 

But within four months of the change over, residents were complaining about the cloudiness, colour, taste and smell of the new tap water. The water from Flint River is also more corrosive and ended up eating away at the pipes, resulting in lead leaching into the tap water.

In January of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, releasing $5 million in federal aid. According to a news release from the City of Flint, the emergency declaration will end on August 14. 

Organizers worried

The crisis forced organizers to move the games from Flint to Hamilton. Since 1958, the sister cities have alternated hosting the annual event. But this year, organizers were worried.

Sheila Drury, lead organizer for the Hamilton side of the CANUSA games, said the decision was made in February. Sports venues needed to be booked, she said, and there was concern that the public and athletes wouldn't support the games if they were held in Flint.

"Everything we heard was doom and gloom," she said, speaking about media stories about Flint. "We didn't know how it would affect our tryouts, if we were still going to Flint."

Drury said public perception of the water crisis was a big reason to keep the games in Hamilton for another year. Her counterpart Mike Maienbrook, the lead organizer for the Flint team, agreed.

We're confident that the issue will be resolved in time for next year's games.- Mike Maienbrook , organizer with Flint CANUSA team

"So many times it's the perception versus reality that governs a lot of things," he said.

Realistically, the games could have been held in Flint this year, he said. While he said he wouldn't comment on the current tap water situation in the city, he said only a small number of athletes have been affected.

"We're doing what needs to be done to ensure the safety of our children," he said. "We're confident that the issue will be resolved in time for next year's games."

Opening ceremonies will be held at Bernie Arbour Stadium on the Mountain at noon on Friday. Venues are scattered throughout the city and are free for all spectators to attend.

The participants range in age from 8 to 18 years of age and on here will be some adult athletes as well. There will be 13 sports played this year, with hundreds of participants from both Hamilton and Flint.

The CANUSA 2016 schedule can be viewed online.