Olympic sailors to get garbage-free waters, maybe

No guarantees of trash-free waters in Olympic sailing competition; risk of sailor running into plastic bag in Brazilian waters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 2:40am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 4:48am

Trash-free water at the Rio Olympics is not guaranteed but sailing competitors can at least expect a “fair” tournament, a top official said Wednesday.

Barely two weeks from the start of the Games, the Brazilian hosts are scrambling to reassure competitors that the bay staging the sailing and windsurfing contests will not be affected by massive pollution.

The concern is that fast, light boats or a windsurfer could run into floating garbage or even just snag a plastic bag, getting slowed down or knocked out of the race. There are also worries about bacteria in the sewage-laden waters.

Andrea Correa, the Rio state secretary for the environment, showed off one of the new barriers aiming at preventing the flow of garbage into the bay and said he thinks competitors won’t have trouble.

“A guy trains for 10 years, comes here and then hits a rubbish bag -- it would be terrible for him,” Correa said.

“There is no bay in the world with no rubbish. Is there a chance we’ll have some problem? There is a very small chance, but it can’t be ignored. It’s not impossible. But I am very optimistic that we can guarantee a fair regatta,” he said.

Correa said the barriers, placed across 17 principal rivers, aim to stop 85 per cent of garbage that used to run freely into the bay.

Regular boaters and clean-up crews on Guanabara report finding everything from dead animals to floating televisions and refrigerators, in addition to masses of plastic bottles and bags.

The so-called eco-barriers on the rivers are having a huge effect, Correa said. Before the latest seven went into service, a network of 10 barriers had already stopped about 2,400 tonnes of rubbish over six months.

Cleaning up what Brazilian researchers have identified as drug-resistant super-bacteria and other potential health risks is much harder. An estimated half of the sewage emitted by the roughly nine million people living around Guanabara Bay is not treated.

Correa insisted that currents in the bay mean that the sailing areas are clean enough for swimming. “Water quality has never been a worry of mine for the Olympics,” he said.

Only the raw sewage gushing into the marina where the sailing boats start posed a true risk, he said, and that has been addressed. “For the last month the water quality has been good,” he said.

In their winning bid to host the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro officials had promised to reduce pollution by 80 per cent, a vow Correa described as absurd.