Olympic sailor suffers severe illness from Guanabara Bay
Belgium's medical team alleges Rio water impacted performance
By Jeb Blount, Reuters
Doctors for the Belgian Olympic medical team suspect polluted water in Rio's Guanabara Bay is responsible for a serious illness that sapped the strength of 2012 Laser Radial bronze medallist Evi Van Acker, her coach told Reuters.
Van Acker, who sits 10th overall after six of 10 preliminary races, was stricken with a severe gastrointestinal illness during training in July and despite a course of antibiotics her strength and stamina remain compromised, said coach Wim Van Bladel in a phone interview in Rio.
Olympic organizers have faced harsh criticism for choosing Guanabara Bay as the sailing venue and for failing to meet promises to clean up sewage that contaminates the bay, including bacteria, viruses and floating trash that threaten to slow or damage boats.
"The judgement of the medical team is that the water is the likely cause of her illness and continuing low-energy level. These diseases affect your muscles' ability to react," Van Bladel said.
In a statement in Dutch, Belgian Olympic officials didn't mention the water; however, it said Van Acker's performance was compromised and she was undergoing an intense 36-hour treatment programme.
The Rio de Janeiro Olympic organizing committee and World Sailing, the sport's governing body, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Waters within international standards
World Sailing has said it regularly tests the water and that it is within international standards. Many sailors have said they have suffered no ill-effects and downplay any risks, suggesting that the water concerns are overshadowing some of the most exciting and challenging sailing of their lives.
However, Van Bladel is not convinced, saying that the impact of Van Acker's illness showed on Wednesday when Laser Radial sailors left the light-wind courses of Guanabara Bay for the large waves and heavy winds of the Copacabana ocean course outside the Bay.
"The courses yesterday were physically difficult, and her weakened condition showed," he said, although he added it is impossible to tell for sure if the water caused Van Acker's illness.
"I can't make that claim, he said. "But the organizers chose this place when they had cleaner venues. Now we just have to deal with it."
Laser sailors interviewed after Wednesday's races, which lasted about an hour each, said the races were "gruelling."
After two second-place finishes in the first four races, Van Acker was fifth overall on Tuesday. She only finished 16th and 15th on Wednesday, dropping to 10th.
The top 10 in each class after 10 preliminary races qualify for a medal race. Sailors receive points equal to their finish with the lowest score wining. In the medal round points are doubled.