Rio’s Polluted Playing Field

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A conversation about the next Olympic sailing venue

The Olympics represent the pinnacle of sport and a rare opportunity for athletes to compete on an international playing field for national glory and personal achievement. But what if the playing field is neither safe nor fair? Prior to winning its bid to host the XXXI Olympiad, Rio de Janeiro promised to clean up Guanabara Bay by 80 percent—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rehabilitate these garbage- and effluent-filled waters. However, more recently Andre Correa, Rio’s newly instated secretary of state for the environment, said most emphatically that, “It’s not going to happen.”

An Australian 49er crew under sail on Guanabara Bay

An Australian 49er crew under sail on Guanabara Bay. image courtesy of ISAF

This announcement confirms what critics have been saying for some time—that the city is actively walking back its commitment, potentially exposing sailors to sewage-born illnesses, while also forcing them to compete on racecourses that have been described as being chocked with everything from speed-sapping plastic bags to discarded sofas.

Now, just 12 months prior to the Rio 2016 Games, there’s a ground-swell of effort to fix the situation, with some ISAF officials calling for a change of venue.

 Josh Adams

Josh Adams

We caught up with Josh Adams, US Sailing’s managing director of Olympic Sailing, to learn more about the team’s preparations for this unusual Olympiad.

SAIL: Have American sailors gotten sick?

Adams: We’ve logged hundreds of days on the water. No doubt, some athletes get sick, but that’s the minority experience. It’s really tough to tell if they are getting stomach sickness from Guanabara Bay or from eating at a restaurant. No one has been prevented from racing or training because of illness.

Long before conditions on Guanabara Bay became headlines, we set about on our own research project, and we worked in partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee. We tested Guanabara Bay in 54 sites, and we had these samples prepared and analyzed by medical experts.
Our experts felt that there was nothing in the water that would prevent our athletes from competing on Guanabara Bay.

SAIL: Are the racing areas any cleaner than the rest of Guanabara Bay?

Adams: There’s a big difference between the upper bay, past the Niterói Bridge, and the main part of the bay where the racing is actually held. A lot of the reporting in the media is actually about areas of Guanabara Bay that are pretty far from where the racing will be held. It’s also important to note that there are several ocean racecourses, outside the bay, where much of the racing will be held.

SAIL: What about the sofas?

Adams: Typically, we can expect debris on the tidelines and—most commonly—plastic bags that can catch the foils of a planing dinghy. From a performance standpoint, this isn’t good. There have been reports of larger objects, but our sailors haven’t confirmed these.

A really important data point about Guanabara Bay was last year’s Rio 2016 test event in August. There was a lot of high-quality racing held, and people certainly experienced dealing with debris. There were some incidents reported, but nothing dramatic or that changed the outcome of the racing.

SAIL: Can there be fair, Olympic-level racing on Guanabara Bay?

Adams: We feel that fair racing can be held on Guanabara Bay. It’s a long series, so the sailors are going see multiple courses, inside and outside Guanabara Bay, and the total body of work is going to be a fair competition.

SAIL: Do you think the sailing venue will be moved?

Adams: We fully expect the Games to be held in Rio, and we think it will be a great Olympic regatta. If there’s a venue change, then we’ll quickly adjust.

SAIL: Anything else?

Adams: The pollution story tends to overshadow the real story of Guanabara Bay, which in our minds is about the challenging currents and winds that are going to make or break Olympic dreams. s

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