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Outside the Lines report: Rio water will still be polluted for Summer Olympics

In this Nov. 5, 2015, file photo, trash floats in the Meriti River, which flows into Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

The water pollution issue that has faced Brazil for decades and 2016 Rio Summer Olympic organizers for years is one that, according to a pair of reports put forth in the past eight months, will not be solved in time for August’s Games.

In the latest notable examination of the issue, Outside the Lines’ Bonnie Ford presents several perspectives in an extensive feature on the water contamination issue, speaking with Olympic organizers, athletes, and local residents affected by the issue daily to produce a lengthy and necessary read for those following the Olympics.

When making its bid for the Summer Games in 2009, Rio de Janeiro’s proposition stated that the Games would actually help the city, and country, combat the pollution issue and that 80 percent of the sewage plaguing the local bodies of water would be treated by 2016. But according to Ford’s report, none of the initial goals have been met, and the water has stayed a worrisome-enough issue that various countries, the United States included, are now having to prepare their athletes for their brief exposure to the polluted Brazilian water.

From the organizer’s vantage point, everything that could go wrong seems to have happened—the country is in the midst of a recession and is currently combatting an outbreak of Zika virus that also has worried competitors just as much as the water from which the infected mosquitos come. The city’s Olympic spokesperson offered up the following uninspiring quote when asked about the matter:

“It’s not going to happen because there was not enough commitment, funds and energy,” Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada told Outside the Lines. “However, we finally got something that the bay has been missing for generations, which is public will for the cleaning.
“Nobody wants to have guests at their house and show a dirty house. So if we’re not able to reach the target, we need to keep working until the last minute and make sure that the athletes can compete in safe waters, and we’ve been doing this.”

This report comes on the heels of a 2015 AP investigation that found enough sewage from the surrounding community was being dumped into the bodies of water in which the 2016 Olympic athletes will compete to create high levels of viruses and bacteria in the venues.

Rio’s Olympic water venues are filthy, no matter how far from shore you are

“The USOC has ongoing concerns over possible existing viral and bacterial contaminants in the water. … The USOC remains hopeful, but we do not expect to anticipate major reductions [italics are the USOC’s] in bacterial or viral pathogen levels at the competition venues.

In speaking with Olympic athletes — including both those who have competed in the Rio water previously and those with no prior exposure — Ford deduced that athletes’ leading train of thought is currently that the water, while polluted and unfit for use on a massive scale, as the citizens of Rio do every day, they are willing to sacrifice a fever or upset stomach for the chance to compete in the Olympics. U.S. triathlete Sarah True spoke with Ford and provided the vantage point that turned out to ring true with other interviewed athletes:

“From everything I understand, the worst that can happen with the race is that a couple of days later, I might get a little sick,” says True, who finished fourth at the 2012 Olympics. “In the very large scheme of things, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I’m far more concerned for the people who live there, who were made these grand promises to improve their environment.
“They could have made some really huge changes. That was supposed to be one of the net benefits. For those promises not to be delivered on is appalling to me.”

Like True, most of the athletes interviewed by Ford shared the common thought that competing in the water was only fractionally as terrifying as the thought of having to drink, swim, and bathe in said water each day. The negative possibilities, while still there for athletes, is exponentially higher for the local citizens surrounding the various bodies of water.

Ford pins some of the blame on the International Olympic Committee, whose executive director Christophe Dubi told her that while the majority of the expectations had not been met, the improvement was better than nothing, a sentiment that the IOC held both in Sydney and Beijing and one that has harmed its global reputation as a result.

The 2016 Summer Olympics are currently scheduled to take place in Rio and the bodies of water in the initial plans — despite outcries from the former CEO of World Sailing — are still the ones that the Olympic Committee plans to use for the upcoming games.