Sports

Rio Olympics: Sailing governing body to test waters in Brazil

The governing body of world sailing says it will start doing its own independent testing for viruses in Rio's Olympic waters after an Associated Press investigation showed a serious health risk to athletes competing in venues rife with raw sewage.

Independent testing will be conducted for bacteria, viruses

Two rowers walk past hundreds of dead fish in the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Google Images)

The governing body of world sailing says it will start doing its own independent testing for viruses in Rio's Olympic waters after an Associated Press investigation showed a serious health risk to athletes competing in venues rife with raw sewage.

"We're going to find someone who can do the testing for us that can safely cover what we need to know from a virus perspective as well as the bacteria perspective," Peter Sowrey, chief executive of the International Sailing Federation, said. "That's my plan."

Sowrey said the AP investigation of water pollution in the Olympic city helped "wake us up again and put this back on the agenda."

The sailing venue in Rio's Guanabara Bay is badly polluted, as is a separate venue for rowing and canoeing — the Rodrigo de Freitas lake — in central Rio. The AP investigation also showed venues for triathlon and open-water swimming off Copacabana Beach are filled with bacteria and viruses that pose a threat to athletes and tourists.​

Dangerous waters

The Associated Press analysis of water quality showed dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from sewage in venues where about 1,400 athletes will compete in water sports at the Rio Games, which open in a year — Aug. 5, 2016.

Olympic organizers and the Brazilian government have tested only for bacteria to decide if the water is safe. But many experts say viruses are a far bigger problem and need to be monitored.

In Rio, much of the waste and sewage goes untreated and runs down hillside ditches and streams into Olympic water venues that are littered with floating rubbish, household waste and even dead animals.

A triathlon test event was scheduled on Saturday despite the government's own report earlier in the week showing parts of Copacabana Beach were unfit for swimming.

When Rio was awarded the Olympics in 2009, it promised cleaning its waters would be an Olympic legacy. But Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes has repeatedly acknowledged this will not be done, calling it a "lost opportunity."

Sowrey said the ISAF would start doing its own water testing in Rio this month, no longer relying solely on Brazil's government analysis. He said International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach had been told about the ISAF's plan and that Bach "was absolutely committed."

"We want to make sure we keep pressure on the organizing committee and the Brazilians to make sure they put some energy into cleaning up the bay," Sowrey said. "My job it to make sure something actually happens and it's not just talk, and someone is actually walking the walk."​

Sowrey said a "backup plan" included sailing all the events outside Guanabara Bay in the open Atlantic. The ISAF has three courses there, and three inside the bay.

In most Olympics, sailing is contested far from the main Olympic venues. In Rio, the sailors and rowers and canoeists get center stage — a chance to win fans and valuable sponsors.

"We're not going to sacrifice health for the sake of good pictures and good TV," he said. "But I think the backdrop of Rio is an amazing backdrop and will do something for the sport of sailing."

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