Following reports that Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay — the venue for sailing and windsurfing events at the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics — is teeming with sewage and viruses, the US Sailing Association said that it won’t push the IOC to move sailing events to a different location.
“We don’t advocate a venue change,” Josh Adams, the managing director of US Sailing, told Business Insider.
“We are well aware of the concerns of water pollution on Guanabara Bay,” he said. “We have been for several years, and have been making preparations to protect the athletes.”
With just over a year remaining until the Opening Ceremony, there is growing concern regarding the water quality of Guanabara Bay. International Olympic Committee officials said that clearing the pollution will be their biggest obstacle over the next year. The AP followed this announcement with a comprehensive report detailing the specifics of the pollution, saying that the water was teeming with sewage and viruses, and that athletes risked becoming “violently ill” while being 1.6 million times more likely to come in contact with a disease-causing virus than on a beach in Southern California.
Ivan Bulaja, a Croatian-born coach of Austria’s 49er-class sailing team, told the AP that his athletes have been sick vomiting and with diarrhoea because of Guanabara Bay’s water conditions.
“This is by far the worst water quality we’ve ever seen in our sailing careers,” Bulaja said.
Adams, however, explained that US Sailing has been working with the United States Olympic Committee to conduct its own tests on the water quality of Guanabara Bay, and they have found the results satisfactory.
“We wanted to take actions into our own hands and test the water and make sure the playing field was safe for our athletes and would be a fair environment for competition,” he explained. “And based on the study we did and the feedback we got from our medical experts, we’re satisfied that the athletes are safe and the competition will be fair.”
“There is a rich history of sailing in Brazil, particularly in Rio de Janeiro,” Adams added. “We’ve been training in Rio for several years without incident. We’ve gained valuable experience there and we’ll continue to monitor the situation and continue to encourage all efforts to clean up the bay. As we speak, US sailing team athletes are just getting of the water after a day of racing at Guanabara Bay.”
Farrah Hall, an American windsurfer who finished 20th in the 2012 London Olympics and is currently in Rio preparing for next summer’s competition, said the pollution levels will all depend on the weather.
“If there isn’t any rain, the physical levels of floating garbage in the areas where we race aren’t as bad as depicted in the media,” she told Business Insider. “The windsurfers mainly race in the area underneath the famous Sugarloaf Mountain, which is close to the mouth of Guanabara Bay. However, further up the bay, there is less tidal flushing and there can be more buildup of trash.”
Hall also explained that avoiding debris is part of any competition.
“In Miami, a very urban venue where the US Sailing Team spends a lot of time training and competing, there are obstacles in the water to avoid such as huge clumps of shedding sea grass and the occasional plastic bag or two-by-four boards. Obviously we would prefer to race where there isn’t any debris, but at any event we don’t have much control over what’s floating in the water.”
Brazilian Olympic officials said that they will work hard to clean Guanabara Bay over the course of the year. Hall isn’t particularly optimistic.
“I haven’t really seen any clean-up efforts happening in my area,” she said. “I’ve read that the government has boats out to collect trash. It is a huge job, so I’m not sure there will be much of an impact before the Games.”
At any rate, athletes are staying focused on training and competition and not letting the issue distract them. Caroline Lind, a two-time American gold medalist in women’s heavyweight rowing, said that the pollution is out of her control.
“As an elite athlete, you just have to block these things out,” she said. “The full focus is being mentally and physically prepared.
Bryan Volpenhein, head coach of the US men’s rowing team, echoed Lind’s words.
“There’s not much we can do about it, other than take precautions and mentally prepare for anything that might come up. You just go out and race and hopefully you row clean enough that you’re not getting splashed.”
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