The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stunner in Rio: Olympic windsurfers find the bay is clean (sort of)

Sailboats in Guanabara Bay, where the Olympic sailing events are taking place in Rio de Janeiro. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

RIO DE JANEIRO — When the Italian windsurfer mentioned the words “plastic bag,” a shiver of excitement ran through the assembled press corps. Maybe even sweeter words were on the way: garbage, sewage, feces, corpse, floating sofa.

It was not to be, however, on the day of the first official Olympic test of Rio de Janeiro’s famously polluted waters. Much had been made of the dangerously dirty conditions of the bays and lagoons here, with their viruses and super-bacteria, and the broken promises by the Brazilian government to clean them up before the Games.

The racers on Monday, though, didn’t do much to advance the plot, instead offering assessments such as “clean” and “pretty good” and “perfect conditions.”

“You can’t get better than this,” Pedro Pascual, an American windsurfer, said. “And the views are amazing. It’s great.”

With a strong breeze, a sunny sky and no recent rain, the Guanabara Bay, where the sailboat races and windsurfing competition take place, didn't appear to the racers as it sometimes does: as a cesspool of trash and human waste.

“Not too much rubbish,” said Mateo Sanz Lanz, a Swiss windsurfer. He and others had been training in the bay for weeks and had seen what the body of water can offer. “Some days before it was more dirty with plastic bags and pieces of wood.”

Mattia Camboni of Italy said that a Frenchman near him hit a plastic bag but that the bay seemed cleaner than during some of the training runs he’d done last year, when “the water was really, really bad. But now it’s okay. I’ve seen worse.”

At one point on Monday, Flavia Tartaglini, an Italian windsurfer who won one of the day's races, got a “bit unlucky” when her board got entangled in a “big piece of a part of a tree.”

“I had to jump in the water and take it out,” she said.

The sailors and windsurfers take off from the Marina da Gloria, situated on a picturesque beach in Guanabara Bay, with views across the water to Sugarloaf Mountain and out to the Atlantic. The water in this bay, as with much of Rio’s seafront, is still badly polluted by sewage and trash, even on a good day. Feces-filled rivers and streams sluice down from the surrounding highlands and empty into the bay. Efforts to connect Rio de Janeiro’s population to sewage lines and water treatment plants have lagged behind over the years.

Last summer, the Associated Press reported results of independent tests of Olympic waterways that showed levels of disease-causing viruses found in human sewage that were up to 1.7 million times above what would be considered highly alarming in the United States and Europe. In June, human body parts washed ashore on Copacabana Beach in front of the Olympic beach volleyball arena. On Sunday, a spokesman for the Rio Olympic Committee said that he could not confirm a persistent rumor that a kayaker ran into a submerged sofa in Rio’s Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.

The canals that run alongside the Olympic Park in western Rio emit a punishing odor of raw sewage.

Even in the quiet cove of the Marina da Gloria, runoff empties from open pipes into the water, sending brown plumes of sewage into the same waters where the sailors launched their boats. Members of the U.S. Olympic rowing team have been wearing antimicrobial suits when they train. Brazilians have deployed floating garbage boats to scoop up the bobbing flotsam that might interfere with the races.

As part of its Olympic bid, the Brazilian government had promised to clean up 80 percent of the sewage flowing into 147-square-mile Guanabara Bay, but it failed to reach that goal, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Environmental officials claim about half the sewage is treated but others put the estimates at far less. The city pledged to build five river-treatment units but only finished one of them.

“I’ve heard these promises for 10, 15, 20 years, not just because of the Olympics,” said Aluizio de Souza, 59, a judicial official with the state government, who was jogging along the bay on Monday. “This is the bad part of the Olympics. It’s a shame.”

“All the Opening Ceremonies was about nature, but they ignore it here,” he added. “I don’t swim here.”

For the past 25 years, Jose Fernandez has run a food stand along the same stretch of beach where Olympics fans watched the sailing races. He has seen electric fans, televisions and toilets wash ashore over the years. The worst days, he said, are usually after a rain, when the trash-filled streams get flushed into the bay. But on other days, he insisted, the water is safe to swim in and populated with crabs, fish, sea horses, turtles and other wildlife. His children grew up swimming in the bay and never got sick. He motioned to his grown son who was manning the food stand.

“If you want, I’ll ask him to jump in now,” he said. “I’m not worried about it.”

Philipp Buhl, one of Germany's Olympic sailors, hopes no one gets sick from the mosquitoes and the presence of “super bacteria.” (Video: Reuters)

Read more:

Brazil says there is 'almost zero' risk of Zika during the Olympics. Really?

Rio may be the glummest city ever to host the Summer Olympics

The Olympic city: Sights and sounds of Rio