Just weeks after the release of an Associated Press report on the sewage-infested waters of Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, dozens of international athletes embarked on August trial championships in conditions that left 13 U.S. swimmers severely ill. The astronomically fetid water — 1.7 million times the level of hazardous conditions in the U.S.— was thought to be restricted to shorelines and rivers. On Wednesday, further reporting from the AP indicates that contaminated waters stretch well over one kilometer out from Rio’s shores, affecting nearly every form of Olympic water competition.
For sailing athletes competing in Rio’s Guanabara Bay, all it takes is a spoonful of water — three teaspoons, to be exact — and the odds of catching a waterborne disease, according to virologists, is certain. Not even athletes’ best efforts to protect themselves from infectious waters have been effective, according to the report:
Athletes in Rio test events have tried many tricks and treatments to avoid falling ill, including bleaching rowing oars, hosing off their bodies the second they finish competing, and preemptively taking antibiotics — which have no effect on viruses.
Despite those efforts, athletes at a competition in August still fell ill. The World Rowing Federation reported that 6.7 percent of 567 rowers got sick at a junior championships event in Rio.
One expert in waterborne viruses at the University of Texas referred to the Olympic water courses as an “extreme environment” — one, she says, that would be closed from public use in the U.S.“The levels of viruses are so high in these Brazilian waters that if we saw those levels here in the United States on beaches, officials would likely close those beaches,” said the expert.
International competitors have been quite vocal about Brazil’s lax preparations to remedy the filthy conditions. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” one Austrian sailor told the New York Times. “Welcome to the dump that is Rio,” wrote the German regatta team. Brazil’s Olympic hopefuls, familiar with the cesspool, have encountered just about every imaginable object in the murky waters. One such competitor, Thomas Low-Beer, once collided with a submerged sofa in the bay. “It can get really disgusting, with dog carcasses in some places and the water turning brown from sewage contamination.”