No clear sailing to 2016 for the Games and Rio de Janeiro
Empty crisp packets, margarine tubs, plastic bottles and bags, glass jars, large polystyrene packaging, television sets, living room furniture and even a dead dog – the contents of the murky Guanabara Bay have long been a problem for Rio de Janeiro.
Less than a month after the 2014 Fifa World Cup final was held in the city, the sporting spotlight is powering back up and being directed at Brazil’s most striking metropolis again.
Today marks two years until the start of the 2016 Olympic Games and coincides with the first of Rio’s 45 official test events scheduled to be held over the next 24 months.
The international sailing regatta started on Saturday and runs for one week, but already an Austrian boat has been damaged after hitting rubbish while training in the bay, and its pilot, Nico Delle Karth, revealing he saw a dead dog floating on the surface.
Rio’s polluted water is proving an all-too-visible – and smell-able – symbol of the problems the city is facing in its preparations.
More than half of Rio’s 16 Olympic venues are not expected to be completed until late 2015 at the earliest, with the greatest concern surrounding the cluster of venues situated in the northern Deodoro district of the city.
Seven sports are set to be held there, including the first rugby sevens competition, but the construction work is more than a year behind schedule and broke ground only last month.
The massive Olympic Park in south-western Barra da Tijuca is where the majority of the Games, including swimming, golf and cycling, will be held.
Shifts were recently extended to cover 24 hours in a bid to quicken progress.
The golf course, designed by American Gil Hanse, who is also designing the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai, appears way behind schedule.
Peter Dawson, president of the International Golf Federation, conceded the timetable is so tight there is no room for complacency.
However, the most glaring problem the city faces at present is its polluted water.
With Guanabara Bay discoloured by the vast quantities of raw sewage that spills into it daily, there are fears the fetid water could pose potential health risks, including gastroenteritis and diarrhoea.
One local rowing coach refuses to accept students unless they have been vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.
In January, Brazilian sailor Martine Grael found a television set floating in Niteroi while doing stand-up paddling. She stopped, hauled it out of the water and sat it on the end of her board to pose for a photo, chin in hands.
She had previously spotted a sofa.
Her father, Lars Grael, an Olympic bronze medallist, later said he had encountered far worse.
“In Guanabara Bay, I’ve come across corpses four times,” he told Brazilian website EsporteEssencial in June. Bernd Zirkelbach, a trainer with the German sailing team, last visited Rio in 2010 and told The National he and his team were so appalled by what they found in the water they took home a sample to test in Germany.
When asked what the results revealed, he laughed motioning with a downwards thumb.
“The water was unbelievable: dirty and disgusting,” Zirkelbach said. “Now it is better than before – better, but still not good.”
According to information provided by the Rio state government, when rubbish sites in 15 cities surrounding Guanabara Bay were closed in 2012, it “prevented the discharge of one Maracana Football Stadium of slurry per week into the waters of the bay”. Rio mayor Eduardo Paes was forced to apologise in June after he acknowledged that the city’s Olympic commitment to treat 80 per cent of the sewage flowing into the bay would not be met by the time the Games start.
Samples of water from the five racing courses in and around Guanabara Bay were tested by the state government on Friday for a range of bacteria – including E-coli – with the results indicating there is no health risk to the 320 athletes taking part this week, a spokesperson for Rio 2016 said.
Australian Mathew Belcher, an Olympic gold medallist at London 2012, is visiting Rio for the first time and said the water appears “quite good” but that problems tended to worsen when it rained, which is expected to happen later this week.
He said conditions are “not ideal, for sure, but there is so much awareness of it now, I don’t think it will be an issue in 2016”.
According to Mario Andrada, the communications director for Rio 2016, the treatment process is back on course and will meet the 80 per cent Olympic bid promise.
“In 2009, we had 12 per cent of the sewage being treated,” he said. “Now that figure is 49.5, so we are still on course to fulfil our commitment and have 80 per cent of the sewage treated.
“The government is acting on the bay and we still have plenty of time to have it ready for the Olympic Games.” Out on the racing courses, the water appears slightly discoloured in areas but largely rubbish-free courtesy of 11 containment belts and 10 eco-boats that together manage about 12 tonnes of rubbish each day.
The problems are more obviously closer to shore, where everything from shoes to suitcases can be seen floating on the surface, which is only the tip of a self-inflicted iceberg of trash.
Nobody knows, and few likely want to know, what lies beneath.
The test events are intended to reduce unknown elements. This week’s seven-day regatta is being viewed as an opportunity for organisers to learn about the water conditions and take another step in understanding what is required as the Olympic and Paralympic Games prepare to be held in South America for the first time.
“Many lessons will be learnt this week not only for the second sailing test next year, but also the upcoming test events not related to sailing,” said Agberto Guimaraes, the executive director of sport and Paralympic integration.
“We have been waiting a long time for this very special moment to get out of the offices. Now it is time to start doing what we have been planning for the past five years.”
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Updated: August 4, 2014 04:00 AM