Does the Show Have to Go On?

The 30-metre high Christ the Redeemer statue, overlooking the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio.

16 July 2016

Göran R Buckhorn is concerned about the world rowers who are soon going to compete at Rio’s sewage-infested Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and maybe run into other problems that Rio is struggling with. Was it wrong to pick Rio as the 2016 Olympic site, Göran asks?

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio are three weeks away. Rowing is one of the first sports starting the Games, on 6 August, at the Lagoa Stadium at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. The lagoon is located in the centre of the 6,5M populated city (12,1M in the metro area) and is known as “The Heart of Rio de Janeiro”. The Olympic rowing course is on a beautiful-looking spot, with picture perfect views and overlooking it is the famous 30-metre high Christ the Redeemer statue.

But Rio has been plagued with problems and is still struggling with organising short-comings. Especially the Olympic water sports seem to be hit hard with sewage-infested waters that are unsafe and can put the athletes’ health at risk. Was it wrong to select Rio as the 2016 Olympic site?

Almost a year ago, on 5 August 2015, HTBS wrote about the dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria which had been found in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon after the Associated Press (AP) had conducted an investigation of the health risks with the waters of the Olympic sites for the different water sports.

The World Rowing Federation (FISA) responded quickly to the AP investigation. Among other things, FISA replied that the organisation, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Rio Olympic Organising Committee (Rio2016) had been in regular contact to evaluate the situation in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and had followed the guidance of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in determining the level of risk for rowing in the lagoon. ‘Independently, FISA has also contacted experts for their advice which has also been to follow the coliform and e-coli measurements. Based on the results of the testing, according to the WHO standards, there is no significant additional risk to athlete health,’ FISA wrote. The World Rowing Federation continued writing:

The FISA Sports Medicine Commission is also in regular contact with the IOC Medical Department which has been following this since the attribution of the Olympic Games to Rio. The monitoring testing of the lagoon has been increased to every second day during the month of July leading up to the 2015 World Rowing Junior Championships which take place next week [5-9 August 2015].

 Upon reading this new information from the AP, FISA immediately made contact through Rio2016 with the Brazilian Health Authorities and the WHO as well as other experts about the significance of the viral findings of the AP. FISA considers that every piece of information is important. 

FISA can assure all competitors and officials that this is being taken extremely seriously because athlete health is FISA’s first concern. FISA will continue to monitor this situation closely. 

The 2015 World Junior Rowing Championships. Photo: USRowing.
The 2015 World Rowing Junior Championships. Photo: USRowing.

Although FISA monitored the health risk situation ‘closely’, AP reported on 12 August 2015 that, at the World Rowing Junior Championships, 13 American rowers and four staff members, including U.S. coach Susan Francia, two-time Olympic champion (and five-time World Champion), of a 40-member strong troop, had come down with various gastrointestinal symptoms during the team’s two-week stay in Rio. While other countries’ teams also reported illnesses, the Americans were by far the hardest hit at the regatta. Although officials did not rule out that the U.S. rowers could have gotten ill from food or drinking water, the U.S. team physician Dr. Kathryn Ackerman told AP that although she was not really sure why so many of the American junior rowers became ill, her personal feeling was that ‘it came from the lake’. Francia agreed and added: ‘It just doesn’t seem normal’.

At the Olympic Games, which will take place in 20 days, around 1,400 athletes will use the waters around Rio, participating in rowing, sailing, triathlon, canoeing and distance swimming. Rowing and canoeing will take place in Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, sailing in Guanabara Bay, and triathlon and swimming off Copacabana Beach.

While it had been fairly quiet about the sewage-infested waters of Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon for some time, on 26 June, media announced that USRowing would take precautions and give the U.S. rowing team a new, high-tech training suit with anti-microbial features which is designed to protect the rowers against the polluted water. This close-fitted unisuit is made by the Philadelphia-based company Boathouse Sports, which is the maker of the USRowing’s official racing uniform. Boathouse Sports founder and CEO John Strotbeck, a two-time rowing Olympian at the 1984 and 1988 Games, told AP that once the rowers try out the new suits they may decide to use them for racing as well. The suit is like a ‘second skin’ and with a double-layered bottom, the rowers can decide to row with or without underwear, according to Boathouse Sports.

Without underwear in Rio?

No other countries have reported that their rowers will have specially designed suits to protect them from the polluted water in the lagoon.

However, before the American rowers even could enjoy their safe, comfortable but maybe revealing suits, new worries for the world rowers came from Brazil, where scientists just the other day reported that they had found a dangerous drug-resistant ‘super bacteria’ off the Copacabana Beach and in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.

The news agency Reuters conveyed that it had seen two unpublished academic studies that Rio’s waterways are unsafe. A study published in 2014 showed the existence of a super bacteria, which is normally found only in hospitals. According to experts, the bacteria should not be present in these waters. But as waste from many hospitals and hundreds of thousands of households pour into Rio’s storm drains and waterways and there is a lack of basic sanitation, the super bacteria have spread outside the city’s hospitals. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies the super bacteria as ‘an urgent public health threat’.

When asked about the water quality, Rio2016 referred questions to state authorities. The Rio state’s Inea environmental agency, on the other hand, said in a statement, that it follows the WHO’s recommendations for testing recreational water safety, and ‘that searching for super bacteria is not included in that’.

In the early 1990s billions of dollars started being pumped in to improve the sewage services. As a matter of fact, Rio won the right to host the Olympics based on a promise to clean up the city’s waterways by developing a better sewage sanitation system. However, the result of the attempts to clean up the mess (pun intended) have not amounted to much. In an article, the website “What About Pollution” writes ‘One public health expert calls the sewage system in Rio largely “medieval”, comparable with London or Paris in the 14th or 15th century’.


Voices have been heard, among them from athletes, how sewage and debris infested water can, and probably will, hamper the fairness of competitions on these waterways.

Nevertheless, as if these troubles with the Rio waterways would not be enough of a headache for the IOC and Rio2016, the Brazilian journalist Vanessa Barbara, writing for The New York Times, published a distressing article in the printed newspaper on 3 July. The headline pretty much sums up the content of the article: “An Olympic Catastrophe” (in the digital version the article is called “Brazil’s Olympic Catastrophe”).

Rio’s finances are in ruins, the construction of the Olympic sites are way behind and the city is dogged with corruption and violent crimes. The whole entire country is in political crisis; the president Dilma Rousseff was impeached in December 2015 as she was accused of having manipulated the state budget. Vice President Michel Temer is now acting as president during Rousseff’s suspension. In all this, the Zika virus seems to be a minor problem, Barbara writes.

August is ‘winter’ in Brazil and the Zika virus should be less of a concern in the ‘cooler’ months. However, the Zika virus has been used as an excuse to not attend the Games. Five-time rowing gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave did not spare his critique against some male golfers as they are using the Zika virus to stay away from Rio. This despite the fact that golf is going to be played for the first time since the 1904 Olympic Games. The reason the male golfers are jumping ship is that there is no big money to win in Rio. The female golfers do not seem to have the same problem and will play at the Games.

Of course, we all know that in three weeks the Rio Olympic Games will start, whether all sports sites are built or not, whether there are mosquitoes carrying Zika virus, whether there is money enough to pay all the bills, whether the Brazilian political system is in shambles, or if Rio inhabitants, athletes and tourists are getting mugged in broad daylight. (You do remember that Sir Steve and his wife, Lady Ann, were confronted by a mugger on the beach in Rio in March 2013?) And whether the waterways are suitable or not to hold rowing events.

It is impossible to stop the Games, whatever happened before or happens as they proceed – The Show Must Go On. But allow me and probably many others to raise concerns about these Games and our rowers, who will be racing for Olympic glory and medals on only God knows what kind of infested waters.

How can this be sanctioned by FISA, an organisation which is involved in a clean water project in other parts of the world?

I cannot help thinking that Rio is not the right place for the 2016 Olympic Games.

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