Sailing chiefs want water quality tests on Rio's 'open sewer' Olympics venue

Governing body hopes to force organisers and IOC to take action on disgusting Guanabara Bay, where competition will be held in 2016

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 9:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 9:43pm

Sailing's governing body may conduct independent water-quality tests in Rio de Janeiro's polluted Guanabara Bay, the sailing venue for the 2016 Olympics and the site of Rio's first test event in two and a half months.

Hope Brazil could clean up the sewage-filled bay soon was quashed over the weekend.

In a May 7 letter to sports minister Aldo Rebelo, Rio's state environment secretary Carlos Francisco Portinho acknowledged in a best-case scenario that pollution flowing into the bay could be cut to "over 50 per cent" - well below the promised reduction of 80 per cent.

We've seen numbers from teams of the faecal content in the Guanabara Bay, which clearly are not safe
Alastair Fox

Alastair Fox, head of competitions for the international sailing federation, said the body was likely to test on its own, hoping to allay athletes' health concerns. The tests could also push Rio organisers to move more quickly.

Fox said he hoped the International Olympic Committee would do independent testing, although the IOC indicated it had no such plans.

"If the IOC are not conducting water-quality tests, then I think it is very likely the ISAF will," Fox said in an e-mail. "Certainly compared to most sailing venues, the water quality is very, very bad."

Danish Olympian Allan Norregaard, a bronze medallist at the 2012 Olympics, said Guanabara was "the most polluted place I've ever been". Other sailors interviewed called it an "open sewer".

The bay and similar concerns about Rio's iconic Copacabana and Ipanema beaches add to the disarray plaguing the Olympics.

Last month, IOC vice-president John Coates said Rio's preparations were the "worst" in memory. Spending has reached US$17 billion and is expected to rise.

Nearly 70 per cent of Rio's sewage goes untreated into its waters. Exposure to faecal matter can cause hepatitis A, dysentery, cholera and other diseases.

The visible problem involves old couches, tyres and dead animals floating in the 383 square kilometre bay.

State officials are using garbage boats to collect floating debris, with the detritus weaving giant blankets of waste along noxious shorelines.

"If someone picks up a bag, or hits a sofa or something like that, then clearly that is going to affect them in the race," Fox said.

"We've seen numbers from teams of the faecal content in the Guanabara Bay, which clearly are not safe," Fox added.

"For us, that's a matter of concern. We've been assured again by the organisers that they are doing everything they can."

The IOC said it had no plans to test, but suggested others might.

"We trust the organisers and [the] ISAF will carry out the necessary research and analysis that will be carefully considered in order to ensure the safety of the athletes," the IOC said.

The IOC did not respond to repeated requests to interview IOC medical director Dr Richard Budgett about potential health risks to athletes.

In March, Nawal El Moutawakel, head of the IOC inspection team in charge of preparing Rio, said she had been assured the bay could be "clean from garbage".

"I don't think we will forgive ourselves if we let the athletes compete in an environment that is not safe and secure," she said.

An analysis last year of a decade's worth of government data on Guanabara and other waterways showed sewage pollution indicators consistently spiked far above acceptable limits, even under Brazilian laws that are far more lenient on pollution than those in the US or Europe.