This summer, when the Olympic Games are held in Rio de Janeiro, marathon swimmers, sailors and triathletes will be asked to compete in the highly polluted waters of Guanabara Bay and off nearby Copacabana Beach. Any athlete coming into contact with these waters has a high probability of becoming ill. Members of the United States junior national rowing team and competitive sailors have become sick with diarrhea, vomiting and flulike symptoms after training and competing around Rio, and they experience only “incidental contact” with the water. Marathon swimmers and triathletes will ingest this water — and the consequences could be deadly.
I am a long-distance open-water swimmer. Before marathon swimming was an Olympic sport, I twice set the overall men’s and women’s record for swimming the English Channel, and I was the first person to swim the Bering Strait from the United States to the Soviet Union. Like all athletes, I overcame pain in pursuit of my goals.
The only time I failed was when I became gravely ill during a race in the Nile River. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was already sick with dysentery from training in the polluted water. Swimming through sewage, rotting rats and dead dogs, I struggled to finish the race. I didn’t want to stop because I was representing the United States, but after 15 miles, I nearly passed out. In the emergency room I was told I was extremely dehydrated and that I could have died.
I am worried that the Olympic coaches and athletes heading to Brazil this year are not well informed about these risks. Raw sewage from the Rio metropolitan area’s 12 million people — enough to fill 480 Olympic-size swimming pools — flows into Guanabara Bay every day. And that water flows directly onto Copacabana Beach, the site of the marathon swimming competition.
Fernando Rosado Spilki, a virologist and expert in water quality at Universidade Feevale in Brazil, was commissioned by The Associated Press to test conditions in all the water competition sites. He identified virus levels 1.7 million times what would be considered hazardous at a California beach. Dr. Spilki concluded that “the quantity of fecal matter entering the water bodies in Brazil is extremely high.” He told me it was “very likely that a person swimming in these waters will get infected.”
The A.P. also asked Kristina Mena, an expert in risk management for waterborne viruses at the School of Public Health at the University of Texas, to examine Dr. Spilki’s results. She predicted that athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of water from the bay have a 99 percent chance of infection.
When Rio was awarded the Games in 2009, the Brazilian National Olympic Committee acknowledged the unsafe conditions and announced plans to install eight water treatment plants. But as of last year only one had been built. Asked about Brazil’s commitment to clean up the water, Rio’s state environmental secretary said, “It’s not going to happen.” He acknowledged that the city will not meet its pledge to reduce pollution, and instead cited efforts to prevent trash from entering the waterways through the use of booms, nets and garbage-dredging “ecoboats” — an entirely ineffective approach to addressing the threat caused by bacteria and viruses.
There are fewer than 100 days to go until the Olympics. Brazil’s chief of security for the Games and the sports minister have recently resigned, and the president, Dilma Rousseff, is facing impeachment in the wake of a corruption inquiry. It’s obvious the country will be unable to deliver on its exuberant promise of a “Green Games for a Blue Planet.” Athletes should not have to swim through sewage in pursuit of their Olympic dreams. Something must be done to protect them.
This is the Olympics: Athletes are willing to compete at all costs. Jordan Wilimovsky of the United States open-water swim team told me that he trusted “that USA Swimming won’t put us in a situation where swimming could cause us to get sick,” adding, “Obviously though, I plan on swimming no matter what the water conditions are.”
His coach, Catherine Vogt, said she was paying attention to the issue and appropriately relying upon “water reports and listening to” the United States Olympic Committee and USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport. But those organizations, and the International Olympic Committee, should be among the loudest voices demanding a solution.
Jack Simon, a former president of the American Swimming Coaches Association and past adviser to three United States Olympic swim teams, told me, “Athletes should consider pulling out if the safety issues are not addressed because no athlete should risk their health to compete in the Olympic Games.”
The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, has said that “the competition area for the athletes will offer safe and fair conditions.” It is the committee’s responsibility to ensure this is so. The aquatic events must be moved to safe, clean waters — and if that can’t be found in Brazil, they must be transferred to another country.
Something similar has happened at least once before, during the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, when the equestrian events were held in Stockholm. Such a move may be the only solution today, short of canceling these races. But that would shatter the dreams of athletes who have trained most of their lives to reach the Olympic Games. They deserve a chance to compete where the water won’t hurt them.
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