Sick to your stomach: Concern for Hong Kong windsurfing duo as Belgian sailor Evi Van Acker takes ill after racing on polluted bay in Rio de Janeiro

Sonia Lo and Michael Cheng have not fallen despite having competed on the water since Monday

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 1:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 9:29pm

A Belgian woman has become the first Olympic Games competitor to fall ill after sailing the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, raising concerns for Hong Kong windsurfing duo Sonia Lo Sin-lam and Michael Cheng Chun-leung.

Evi Van Acker, who won a bronze medal in 2012, reported feeling sick after Wednesday’s races, governing body World Sailing said and her poor performances had put her at risk of missing out on a medal in the Laser Radial class.

“Evi caught a bacteria in early July that causes dysentery,” coach Wil Van Bladel said. “Doctors say this can seriously disrupt energy levels for three months. It became clear yesterday that she lacked energy during tough conditions. She could not use full force for a top condition. The likelihood that she caught it here during contact with the water is very big.”

The poor quality of Guanabara Bay was at the forefront of the build-up to the Olympics, with an independent study by The Associated Press showing high levels of viruses in the water as well as bacteria from human sewage.

Hong Kong’s Lo and Cheng began competing on Monday and had a rest day on Wednesday. They resumed their attempt to make the medal race in the RS:X on Thursday.

With three qualifying races to go, Cheng is nicely poised a place, but Lo’s chances are all but over.

On a day with gusting, shifting winds, the RS:X pair were severely challenged.

Cheng managed to stay in seventh in the fleet’s overall ranking, with the top 10 going to the medals races. He finished ninth ,13th and 13th and will aim to stay with the main fleet to consolidate his position in the top 10 in the final three races.

But Lo, needing extremely good results to catch up after poor performances in the opening six races, finished 11th ,17th and 17th and is ranked 19th overall. Her remaining races will only be about boosting her overall ranking. The medal race is on August 14.

Van Acker was evaluated by the chief medical officer and the Belgian medical team, World Sailing spokesman Darryl Seibel said. He added that this appears to be an isolated case and Van Acker is the only sailor who has reported feeling ill in the opening days of the regatta.

Van Acker had a “serious gastrointestinal infection a few weeks ago,” the Belgian Olympic Committee said in a statement.

Carried by the wind: Hong Kong windsurfers targeting top 10 finishes in Rio, says coach

“She has not fully recovered. It makes it difficult for her to go through long periods of sustained effort,” said the statement.

The committee said a physiologist is working with Van Acker leading to the next races on Friday “so she can get the most out of her energy reserves.”

Olympic officials have insisted that sailing on the sprawling bay is safe, and sailing officials have said competitors have taken precautions. Even Brazilian sailors have said there’s no danger – at least for those who compete there regularly.

German sailor Erik Heil, however, was treated for several infections he said were caused by polluted water during a Rio test regatta a year ago.

He sails in the 49er class in which the two-man crew is splashed the whole race. That class is also prone to capsizes.

Van Acker, a favourite to return to the podium in Rio, has had consistently weak performances. She was second and 12th on Monday, second and 29th Tuesday and then 16th and 15th in tough conditions on Wednesday.

‘Your boat looks like a toilet’: Oil turns white boats to brown in Rio Olympic sailing venue

She’s 10th overall with four races left before the medals race. Although that would get her into the medals race, she has 47 points, currently 26 points out of medals position.

As the games approached, most sailors tried to deflect talk from the foul water to the competition.

“That’s a shame,” Denmark’s Allan Norregaard said about Van Acker’s illness. “I don’t have much comment on that.”

Norregaard had been outspoken about the pollution in Guanabara Bay, particularly the amount of trash in the water.

“It’s a lot better now than it was,” said Norregaard, who changed subjects and said the weather conditions on some courses are “just not suitable for the games. ... It’s scandalous.”

At a test event a year ago, sailors complained about the stench of sewage flowing into the harbour at the venue, the Marina da Gloria, just yards from where the boats are launched.

Hong Kong windsurfers very concerned with polluted waters in Rio

That problem was fixed earlier this year when a new sewage system was installed to stop brown, untreated sludge from being poured into the small harbor.

Seibel said that every morning World Sailing’s medical and technical officials evaluate the latest water quality testing data provided by the government to make certain conditions acceptable.

“The standard our team uses in assessing water quality is the World Health Organisation standard for primary contact [even though sailing is classified as a secondary contact sport],” Seibel said in an email. “For every day of competition thus far, and in the lead-up to the games, the water quality has met this standard.”