Austrian Nico Dalle Karth, a sailor preparing for his fourth Olympics, did what he usually does before a race: He studied the water’s currents in search of the fastest racing line.
At a competition last year in Rio de Janeiro, which will be the first South American host of the multisports showpiece in 2016, there was a problem. The quickest path for the 49er class sailor and his teammate Nikolaus Resch would have meant cutting through a swath of garbage including plastic chairs and tables.
“It was strategic decision where to go because of the trash in the water,” Dalle Karth said in an interview at the Sao Francisco sailing club in Niteroi as he prepared for the 2016 Olympics first test event, the Aquece Rio sailing regatta beginning Aug. 2. “You couldn’t go to the left because you had to stop three times afterward to get the trash off your center board and rudder”
The event will bring new scrutiny onto Olympics organizers after Brazil’s soccer World Cup ended earlier this month. Rio has pledged to clean up the Guanabara Bay, an iconic location shadowed by the city’s famous Sugarloaf mountain. The bay is so polluted that local rowing coach Fabio Araujo won’t take on students who haven’t been vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. Organizers say the competition courses will meet international standards, and have invited teams to carry out their own tests on the water.
“The health and welfare of the athletes is always a top priority and there is absolutely no risk to anyone involved with the Aquece Rio event,” Rio 2016 said in statement. “Significant advancements have already been made since Rio was awarded the Games in 2009, and the improvements will continue up to and beyond 2016.”
In June, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes said the city won’t be able to follow through on a pledge to improve the quality of the water by 80 percent by the time the games begin.
“I am sorry that we didn’t use the games to get Guanabara Bay completely clean, but that wasn’t for the Olympic Games -- that was for us,” he said. “That was something that we could not accomplish that was in the bid book.”
Aerial images taken by Rio-based biologist Mario Moscatelli show the water around Marina de Gloria, the location from which sailors will set off, discolored by sewage.
“The major current problem of Guanabara Bay is the almost universal discharge of sewage by most rivers that flow into the bay,” Moscatelli said by e-mail. “The health risks vary from mycosis, gastroenteritis, diarrhea or even hepatitis, all waterborne diseases, especially at points where the bay waters receive large sewage discharges from contaminated rivers.”
Worse Than Beijing
Dalle Karth said the quality of the water in Rio is even worse than that he experienced at the Beijing Games in 2008. There, 10,000 workers were called upon as up to one-third of the competition area was covered in algae that bloomed in the weeks before the start of the Olympics because of waste from factories and farms.
Since the turn of the year, Rio’s state government has introduced special vessels and erected barriers to collect solid waste. Still, sewage continues to flow into the bay.
The odor of the water can be unbearable, said Dalle Karth. “The sea was really smelling like a toilet and this was disgusting,” he said.
‘Call a Doctor’
Araujo, who teaches rowing classes at Clube de Guanabara, a boat club close to the Olympic competition area, said he never gets into the water because of the sewage and debris that includes used condoms.
“If someone falls in, call the doctor,” Aruajo said.
Rio’s authorities are moving to deal with a sanitation shortfall that’s old as the state of Rio, where 16.3 million people live. In 2007, of the 8.5 million inhabitants who lived around the bay, 85 percent didn’t have sewage systems connected to their homes, according to the state government’s environment office. Today around 40 percent, or 3.2 million people, have access to basic sanitation.
Moscatelli says the way waste has been dumped into Rio’s waterways is reminiscent of how people lived as far back as the 17th century.
“In the last four decades the big problem has been the lack of permanent housing policies, transportation and sanitation and the result has been the transformation of rivers into garbage and sewage channels, and all being dumped into the bay of Guanabara,” he said.
For Dalle Karth, whose annual budget is around 100,000 euros ($134,000), the focus is on turning a fourth place finish in 2012 into an Olympic medal in Rio whatever the dangers lurking in the water. Cleaning the bay should be a priority beyond the $15 billion Olympics and legacy for the people of Rio, he said.
“We will survive the Olympics but if the Olympics come here there should be a chance for the people to get something, to get the bay cleaned again,” he said. “This should be the goal of the Olympic spirit.”