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With the Olympic and Paralympic Games set to commence in Rio de Janeiro (in August and September respectively), excitement is rising, but so too are concerns for the wellbeing and health of certain athletes, particularly those of the sailing team and others who are competing in the Paralympics.
In recent days, German sailing champion Heiko Kroeger has once again raised the issue of environmental conditions within Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, which has athletes worried and only a few short months to go until the event. Kroeger, who won the Olympic Gold Medal at the 2000 Games in Sydney and Silver in the 20111 London Games, has reiterated ongoing fears that many athletes, particularly those exposed to the water, will become unwell.
Kroeger was in Rio for a competition just a few days ago, and spoke with Reuters upon his return:
“Usually when you are sailing, you open your mouth and take in some water to refresh yourself, but in Rio last week, mouths and noses stayed shut and heads turned away from the spray,” he said. “I have been sailing a long time but I have never seen that happening. There is a constant fear in our heads, a fear that you could get sick. That of course affects the competition because you know that if you get sick you are out.”
Throughout the interview, Kroeger criticised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for not putting enough pressure on the Brazilian authorities to clean up the bay. He outlines the extra issues which wheelchair bound athletes face when presented with the task of navigating through polluted waters.
“They have many times open wounds because of the wheelchairs and in that water they are far more vulnerable. A city was picked to host the Games, but their promise has not been kept, with the IOC being weak in pushing the organizers to deliver. You would expect the IOC’s top priority to be the safety of the athletes.”
The media has been reporting on the terrible pollution and garbage problems which exist in the bay for some time now, with articles including promises of a great clean up dating back several years. Photos of the bay and the detritus that lines the shore certainly made an impact, especially when, in an interview with The New York Times, veteran sailor Thomas Low-Beer spoke about his difficulties training there, as well as some of the horrific things he has seen floating in the water.
Even a few months ago, The New Yorker ran a story about how the pollution levels were almost life-threatening:
Olympic officials are downplaying reports on the heavily polluted water venues, most notably a five-month investigation conducted by the Associated Press, which found the waters “chronically contaminated,” and revealed dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage.
Brazilian environmentalist Mario Moscatelli has referred to the lake as ‘a latrine’ and expressed his fears that sailors could be exposed to a number of viruses and illnesses including ear infections, conjunctivitis, hepatitis A and mycosis, as well as the hazards which exist from dangerous debris which litters the water. The New Yorker article also cites an official statement from the Olympic committee on the issue which denies that the water is unsafe for use.
In a statement, Rio 2016 organizers said that the water is safe and that the health and welfare of the athletes is a top priority for the Olympic organizers. “Independent testing in the competition area of the Guanabara Bay venue has consistently proven the water quality to meet relevant international standards,” the statement read, adding that Rio organizers are meeting weekly with government authorities to monitor the problem and improve conditions. (As is noted in their report, the AP studied the water for viruses as well as bacteria, while the organizers relied “on bacteria testing only.”)
It’s not the first time that environmental factors have threatened the Olympic sailing events. In China there was an algae problem, which threatened the sailing events in 2008. The Chinese authorities commissioned a huge cleanup operation which allowed for the Games to proceed without further interruption or incident. Brazil’s promise to reduce the toxicity of the water in Guanabara Bay, however, remain undelivered.
The most significant factor in all of this is not whether the Games go ahead in the Bay or not. The focus should be on the fact that Brazil is a country facing a massive economic and social collapse and, in addition to this, is gradually becoming one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Environmentalist issues tend to be pushed aside once financial concerns take over and, once the celebration of the Olympic Games has been and gone, what faces the country then?
The Brazilian cattle industry is responsible for a huge amount of deforestation and methane emissions, whilst man-made disasters such as the 2015 Mining spill at Samarco, which released a slew of toxic mud into the ocean, become more common. Poor sewage and sanitation systems are commonplace, and with an ongoing loss of plant and animal life, as well as habitat destruction, there are a lot of things which the world needs to pay attention to when it comes to Brazil.
Attention needs to be paid to the ecosystem of Brazil. With growing environmental problems, maybe high profile events such as this can highlight the fact that there is a break within the logistical construct of this country, and that a more sustainable and tenable method of waste disposal be initiated. It is almost inarguable that if the Olympics weren’t coming to Rio this summer, that the fate of Guanabara Bay would not be making international headlines. The giant task that exists is finding a way to create that empathy and concern for the environment without the motivation of a huge sporting event as the catalyst.