Brazil has invited sailors to participate in the first test event in preparation for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, even as some have voiced concerns about water so polluted that some have compared it to a “toilet.”
From August 3-9, Rio will host the Aquece Rio regatta, intended to bring some of the top sailors to the city and showcase the course through the Guanabara Bay, the planned location for the Olympic sailing events.
The bay, in the shadow of Rio’s famous Sugarloaf mountain, is a dumping point for trash and sewage from the city, which releases nearly 70 percent of its untreated sewage into nearby bodies of water. The water is so polluted that one local rowing coach refuses to take students out unless they have been vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.
Sailors have repeatedly criticized the quality of water in the bay, saying it is impossible for them to plan and follow the most competitive routes when they have to dodge floating debris like plastic tables and chairs. They have also complained about the smell produced by the human waste in the water. A November 2013 study found that the level of fecal pollution in the bay was 78 times Brazil’s legal limit — 195 times the allowed level in the U.S. — leading many in the sailing world to claim the bay could not be used for elite competition.
Only about 3.2 million people, or 40 percent of the residents living around the bay, have access to basic sanitation services.
Brazil’s government has deployed a special fleet of 10 boats to clean debris and trash out of the water, but many say the boats do nothing to get rid of more dangerous waste like fecal matter.
Alastair Fox, the International Sailing Federation’s head of competitions, acknowledged earlier this year that the test regatta would be “difficult,” as the strategies intended to cut down on pollution would have yet to take effect.
When Rio won the bid to host the 2016 Olympics, officials promised to cut pollution in the bay by 80 percent in time for the Games. Rio mayor Eduardo Paes admitted in June that the city would be unable to meet that goal, but officials still insist that the water meets international standards.
“The health and welfare of the athletes is always a top priority and there is absolutely no risk to anyone involved with the Aquece Rio event,” Rio 2016 organizers said in a statement. “Significant advancements have already been made since Rio was awarded the Games in 2009, and the improvements will continue up to and beyond 2016.”
Organizers are inviting teams to test the water independently, hoping this will help calm some of the health concerns.
Additional reporting by Associated Press