Odaiba Beach

We were shocked when we read about the levels of water pollution in Guanabara Bay that sailors and rowers competed in, and saw the waters of the diving pool turn a sickly green during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

And yet, here we are a year later, and we learn of the significantly polluted waters of Tokyo Bay, the intended site for triathletes and open-water swimmers.

According to Inside the Games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government conducted a water quality test in Tokyo Bay over a 21-day period, which is a sample size as long as the actual Games themselves. The results, which were shared at an October gathering of the IOC Coordination Commission in Tokyo, showed “levels of E. Coli up to 20 times above the accepted limit and faecal coliform bacteria seven times higher than the permitted levels.

This Asahi News article quoted organizers as saying that “an inflow of raw sewage caused below-standard water quality in more than half of tests conducted.” Officials explained that “heavy rain caused overcapacity at sewage processing plants, and some of the untreated sewage flowed into Tokyo Bay,” and that “they are considering such measures as installing triple layers of a screen that can block the flow of coli bacillus.

 

warning signs odaiba marine park-odaiba-tokyo-bay-tokyo-japan-fncd4y
Sign at Tokyo Bay’s Odaiba Marine Park listing prohibitions, including one against swimming.

 

Is there any consideration to move the venue for the triathlon and the open-water swimming events?

Sports Director of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, Koji Murofushi, shut that idea down, stating that “measures will be taken so that we can provide an excellent environment for the sports.”

The truth of the matter is, there have been signs in the area planned for the Olympic events for years warning people not to swim in the bay. Will the organizers figure out to clean up this act? We’re a little more than a thousand days away. Tick tock.

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open water swimming fort copacabana

In the first four Olympiads, from 1896 to 1904, swimming events were held in open water areas like The Mediterranean, The Seine River or artificial lakes. As mentioned in a previous post, the 1908 Olympics in London were held at the massive White City Stadium that had a pool and diving area built into the infield. For the most part in recent history, swimming events have been held in pools, and recently indoor pools.

At the 2000 Olympics, the triathlon was introduced, which includes a 1,500 meter swim in open water. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, athletes could compete for the first time in a 10,000 kilometer swim. In Beijing, this 10,000 meter swim took place in a rowing-canoeing park, while the same race took place in The Serpentine, which is a recreational lake in Hyde Park, London.

For the 2016 Rio Olympics, both the triathlon and the 10,000 meter swim competition will commence at Fort Copacabana, which is at the southern edge of Rio de Janeiro. This is truly open water as Fort Copacabana opens up into the South Atlantic Ocean.

There has been a lot of news about the filthy and possibly dangerous conditions in the Guanabara Bay waters, where the sailing events will take place, but Fort Copacabana is about 30 kilometers away from the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, and there is less anxiety about sickness and safety for he triathlon and 10,000 meter race. This is how the site openwatersswimming.com puts it.

Fort Copacabana to Guanabara Bay

As can be expected in a beach bordering a major metropolitan area, Copacabana Beach is not pristine and there is plenty of urban runoff in the water, especially after a rain. But it still remains one of the world’s most iconic beaches and presents one of the world’s greatest natural amphitheaters for open water swimming competitions. With a twice daily inflow and outflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean, major events like the Rei e Rainha do Mar and Travessia dos Fortes are hugely successful.

To me, what is more amazing about the 10,000 meter open water swim is how close the finishes are. Unlike a 10k run, which is completed in 26 to 28 minutes at high performance levels, a 10k open water swim will take about 1 hour and 50 minutes to 2 hours, which is a little less time than a fast-paced foot marathon of 42 kilometers. While 10,000 meter race finishes are determined by seconds, marathon top finishers are often ten to thirty seconds apart.

Maarten van der Weijden
Maarten van der Weijden, winner of the first Olympic 10,000 meter open water swim competition in 2008.

In the short history of Olympic open water racing, after nearly two hours of grueling swimming, the differences between the top finishing times have been seconds, even fractions of seconds. At the first 10,000 race in Beijing, only two seconds separated the medalists, 1.5 seconds being the difference between gold and silver. At the London Games four years later, only 3.4 seconds separated first from second.

All this after nearly two hours in the water!