Rowing through the Shit with Blinkers* on

The Lagoa Stadium at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio. Photo: FISA.
The Lagoa Stadium at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio. Photo: FISA.

1 August 2016

Göran R Buckhorn writes:

The other day, I was mocked and ridiculed and called a jerk and a troll by a soon-to-be three-time American Olympic rower. Well, to be honest, Megan Kalmoe (M.K.) did not mention me by name, nor did she mention HTBS as the medium where she had read an article that greatly displeased her. Whether M.K. had read my article or not, she attacked the views I and others have expressed so I feel obliged to defend my opinions.

Which article of mine on HTBS might she then have read that so disturbed her that she went on a rant in an article on her blog on 19 July?

On 16 July, I wrote a piece called “Does the Show have to Go On?” about what I personally find alarming: the poor water qualities that the world rowers and other water sport athletes will have to endure at the Olympic Games in Rio, which starts in a few days. The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where the Olympic rowing events are going to be held between 6 and 14 August, has proved to be a sewage-infested dump that is a health risk for those who will row and race on these waters. It was an honest felt concern for the world rowers’ health and that Rio’s debris-infested waters can obstruct the fairness of the Olympic rowing that made me pen the article. It was not an opportunistic piece and it was not a criticism of the Brazilian people.

In my article I also mentioned other problems with having the Olympic Games in Rio, for example the super bacteria that normally can be found in hospitals but now have found its way into the Rio’s waterways; the high corruption rate in Brazil; the violent crimes, especially in and around Rio; the city’s financial crises: and the Zika virus. Not by any means was my article original as all these troubles have been pointed out for a long time by health experts, environmentalists, journalists and writers. Since the early 1990s, billions of dollars have been earmarked to improve the sewage services, but little has changed. Rio’s sewage system is still, as a public health expert mentioned in an article on the website “What About Pollution”, ‘comparable with London or Paris in the 14th or 15th century’.

It was against this and more M.K. wrote on her blog on 19 July. I did not read her article then, it was first when the British newspaper The Guardian, which also has an American website/edition, picked up her piece and re-published it on the paper’s website on 26 July, the day M.K. left for the Olympic Games in Rio, that I became aware of her writing.

In her lengthy article “I will row through shit for you, America”, M.K. writes that she is tired of everyone ‘who is fixated on shit in the water,’ and then she continues, ‘Stop trying to ruin the Olympics for us’. With ‘us’, I guess she means the world rowers, or at least the American rowers. She cannot understand why the media and others are still talking and writing about what she calls ‘the shit’. M.K. writes that it is ‘known that there are issues with the water quality […] that athletes are going to be at risk for illness […] that we are going to have to be smart, hygienic and take precautions. Great. Let’s move on.’

Maybe there is a good reason why we – the media, including a simple blogger like me – want to continue talking about ‘the shit’, because firstly, nothing has been done about the problems despite billions of dollars that have been given to the authorities to develop a better sewage sanitation system in Rio. Secondly, Rio won the rights to host the Olympics based on a promise to clean up the city’s waterways. If M.K. would like to be gung-ho about the polluted water, please go ahead, swallow the shitty water and be happy. But the important question remains: what happened to all that money that was meant for a good cause for everyone in Rio, tourists, Olympians and cariocas, the people living in Rio, alike?

M.K. accuses the media for ruining the Games for the athletes. Of course, this is pure nonsense. Why would the media, including me, like to ruin any athlete’s fun at the Games? My point is merely to express that I think the IOC has mishandled these Games miserably and has clearly been duped – how else should one explain the mess the Olympic Games in Rio are in now?

The American 2012 Olympic bronze medallists in the quadruple sculls, from left to right: Adrienne Martelli, Natalie Dell, Megan Kalmoe and Kara Kohler. Photo: USRowing.
The American 2012 Olympic bronze medallists in the quadruple sculls, from left to right: Adrienne Martelli, Kara Kohler, Megan Kalmoe and Natalie Dell . Photo: USRowing.

Understandingly, it is frustrating for M.K. to only read articles about ‘the shit’. But surely other, non-shit articles have been written about these Games? Sports Illustrated published an ‘Olympic preview issue’, 25 July-1 August, with a brilliant article by Richard O’Brien, “The Unbeatables”, about the American women’s eight (though in that issue of the magazine was also an article about the host city’s struggle, where the shitty water was mentioned in a sentence). The poor water quality is clearly extraneous for M.K. and her goal to reach the medal podium. However, she gets out on deep waters when she writes that we should not be disgruntled for a few weeks of hardship – it is after all the Olympics, where optimism and positivism thrive and these are glorious times for everyone. In her article, M.K. mentions ‘the countless Brazilian citizens who live their whole lives in Rio and don’t complain.’ But, of course they do, or try to do, but most of the poor Brazilians do not have a voice in all this, not before, during or after the Olympic Games because no one in the Brazilian corrupted power elite gives a damn about them. The lives of the poor people and especially those living in the favelas will not improve because of the Games, far from it.

In the beginning of July, Vanessa Barbara, a Brazilian(!) journalist, published an article in The New York Times where she stated that at least 4,120 families had been evicted from their homes because of the Games. They were not given any information and there were not discussions of the urbanization projects; instead, the families received a low market value for their homes and were moved as far away as 35 miles. I bet you, they are not happy about the Games.

Living in her ‘Olympic bubble’, it is possible that M.K. did not hear or care about any of the number of poor people who have been shuffled around by the police to clean the city’s streets or who have just been moved out of the way for different Olympic Games developments? Surely, rowers and other sportsmen and -women in training are not living such a sheltered life that they do not see the Brazilian people’s reality? The way M.K.’s article reads, it sounds like she is oblivious or does not care or is too busy training for medals to see the hardships which millions of people live under in Rio. Maybe, when M.K. rows on The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, she should use blinkers (Am. blinders) to be able to concentrate on the races she is in and not see ‘the shit’ she is rowing in?

By not writing a happy-go-lucky article about the Olympic rowing in Rio, I am, according to M.K. an ‘embarrassment’, a lazy person sitting in an armchair who has never been a part of the Olympic Movement and who only would like to write about ‘the shit’. Furthermore, she believes that I am a crappy person ‘who probably doesn’t have any friends.’

She is right about certain things here: I am sitting down while writing this and I have never been a part of the Olympics, more than enjoying them in front of the TV and now and then writing about Olympic rowing for a rowing magazine. I am trying to be a decent person, despite that I lately have been criticising the IOC and Rio2016 – and just for the record, I do have a couple of friends.

So far in M.K.’s article, I can understand that she was frustrated when she wrote it and I wish she would have stopped writing at that point, mid-way through the piece. But unfortunately, she did not. Instead, she continues on a rampage, swinging her pen (or oar?) left and right, even lashing out at friends: ‘Speaking of having no friends: where are all the people who [were] going to be supporting us this summer?’ She complains that ‘the positive voices’ are silent instead of taking down the ‘trolls’, who leave bad comments and write negative articles about the Rio Games. Also those who mean well, or as M.K. calls them, ‘people who are supposed to be on our side’, have to stop asking questions about the poor water quality the athletes are going to row in, as ‘it’s an unnecessary distraction that we competitors do not need […]’.

The worst part of the article is yet to come whilst M.K. writes:

[…] Because we are doing this for you, after all. We are American [sic], and we are going to Rio to represent you in this potentially flawed and imperfect setting that you are trying so desperately to get the public to love to hate. We are going to compete for medals to bring them home to you, and for you so that the US has a good shot at winning the medal tally again in Rio. We go to Rio and face incredible odds, some of us, for you so that you will be proud of us, and proud of supporting Team USA.

It is beside the point that I am not an American, I just happen to live in America, so M.K. and her team mates are obviously not rowing for me, which is okay, but winning an Olympic medal, maybe even a gold, for someone else than the rower him- or herself…… Who would nowadays believe in a declaration like this? It is an American cliché worthy of a Hollywood B-movie!

M.K. takes one last swing at us, the ‘critical crusaders’, when she writes that we should stop criticising Brazil for the Games, particularly as America had the chance to host the 2016 Olympics, but ‘we wimped out on the Chicago bid’.

I guess that was totally my fault. I will probably be blamed if Los Angeles does not get the Games in 2024, too. But seriously, I have not blamed Brazil or its people, I have criticised certain groups and organisations for the Olympic mess, among them the IOC, Rio2016 and to some degree, FISA.

Previously, I have enjoyed reading M.K.’s articles on her blog, but this one only leaves a bad taste in my mouth (maybe it is the water?).

I am surprised that The Guardian decided to publish M.K.’s article, especially without editing out certain of her bombastic outbursts. As it was published in its entirety, the American bravado did not go over well with the British readers, and an overwhelming majority of the slightly more than 360 who have left comments did not hide their discord. For myself, I feel M.K.’s article is unbalanced, ill-tempered, self-centred, whiny, naïve and just plain embarrassing for being written by one of American rowing’s high-profile athletes. It is a pity, really.

Lastly, to be clear, I do wish that the Olympic rowing events will go well and without any calamities of any kind. I do hope that the best rowers will win – and if M.K. and her team mates in the quadruple sculls get on the medal podium, I will applaud and be happy for them. I promise!

*Am. blinders

3 comments

  1. In reference to G. R. Buckhorn’s post, “Rowing through the Shit with Blinkers On” he writes, “I feel M.K.’s article is unbalanced, ill-tempered, self-centred, whiny, naïve and just plain embarrassing for being written by one of American rowing’s high-profile athletes. It is a pity, really.” Well, actually, there is no need to emote and “feel.” The article actually is “…unbalanced, ill-tempered, self-centred, whiny, naïve and just plain embarrassing for being written by one of American rowing’s high-profile athletes. It is a pity, really.” And so it goes….

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