An investigation by the Associated Press has concluded that the waters of Rio de Janeiro, where the Summer Olympics will be held next year, are chock-full of sewage, and that competing athletes should not be surprised if they get "violently ill" after swimming and boating events.
The AP analysis is, in their words, the first "independent comprehensive testing for both viruses and bacteria at the Olympic sites." Prior to this, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Brazilian officials have only conducted bacterial tests on Olympic sites, and have found them to be acceptable. The AP notes that the IOC's medical director responded to the findings by saying, "We've had reassurances from the World Health Organization and others that there is no significant risk to athlete health…there will be people pushing for all sorts of other tests, but we follow the expert advice and official advice on how to monitor water effectively."
But Brazilian officials have conceded that they won't fulfill promises made when the country won Olympic bid in 2009. Officials had said they would cut pollution into the notoriously dirty Guanabara Bay by 80 percent ahead of the games, but "it's not going to happen," said Rio's environment secretary in January.
Athletes are already participating in qualifying events, and many have gotten sick. Which makes sense when considering the AP investigation's results: In some cases, tests showed that viruses were found on Olympic sites at rates 1.7 million times what would be considered unsafe on beaches in California. They also found that "athletes at all water venues would have a 99 percent chance of infection if they ingested just three teaspoons of water."
Brazil's dirty waters have long been a concern, and the 2016 Olympic Games have put them under an international spotlight. The country has also been hit with criticism for displacing families to make room for the games, among other accusations.
The AP paints an evocative picture :
Raw waste runs through open-air ditches to streams and rivers that feed the Olympic water sites… Despite decades of official pledges to clean up the mess, the stench of raw sewage still greets travelers touching down at Rio's international airport. Prime beaches are deserted because the surf is thick with putrid sludge, and periodic die-offs leave the Olympic lake, Rodrigo de Freitas, littered with rotting fish.
A marine biologist who evaluated the AP's results commented, "what you have there is basically raw sewage."
IOC President Thomas Bach has a more forgiving take. He told the Guardian that, "Given the fact that the organizing committee has acknowledged its challenges we are very confident we will have a great Games in one year because acknowledging challenges is the first and most important step to overcoming them.”
Makes Sochi look like paradise.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.