Guanabara Bay: The Intersection between Olympic Dreams and Reality

Cunha Canal that FLows into Guanabara Bay
The Cunha canal that flows into the highly polluted Guanabara Bay.

“Athletes in next year’s Summer Olympics here will be swimming and boating in waters so contaminated with human feces that they risk becoming violently ill and unable to compete in the games, an Associated Press investigation has found.”

So starts this report from Associated Press released July 30. The pollution is Guanabara Bay has been an issue over several decades, impacted by the growth of Rio de Janeiro and the inability of the country to keep up with the waste management needs of the population. In short, Guanabara Bay has become the cesspool of the Brazilian capitol. The AP report continues: “Extreme water pollution is common in Brazil, where the majority of sewage is not treated. Raw waste runs through open-air ditches to streams and rivers that feed the Olympic water sites. As a result, Olympic athletes are almost certain to come into contact with disease-causing viruses that in some tests measured up to 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.”

Garbage on the shore of Guanabara Bay_1June 2015
In this June 1, 2015 file photo, a discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

According to the report, athletes competing in canoeing, sailing, rowing, triathlon and open-water swimming are at risk. In this recent article from Nick Zaccardi of NBC OlympicTalk, US officials related to these sports are taking a realistic tone, stating that the safety of their athletes is the highest priority, that they are heavily encouraging the organizers to improve the conditions, and that they will follow the medical recommendations of experts.

“Athlete safety is always of the utmost importance to USA Triathlon, and we take this situation very seriously,” USA Triathlon CEO Rob Urbach said in a statement. “We are in direct conversation with our athletes and listening closely to any concerns. We will continue to work collaboratively with all involved organizations and federations to help protect the health of those competing at the Olympic and Paralympic test events in Rio. We have been assured by applicable regulatory bodies that the water quality meets required standards. As part of our overall efforts, we are offering a preventative medical management plan on-site to all of our athletes.”

In the end, the athletes are going to swim in the water, and here is what American world champion Gwen Jorgensen was quoted as saying: “There’s a standard that has to be met, and the standards were met. We swim in waters all around the world, and this was no different from anywhere else.”