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.

YOG winner of inaugural triathlon team relay - Europe 1
Youth Olympic Games winner of inaugural triathlon team relay – Europe 1

A triathlon team relay? A normal Olympic triathlon lasts about 2 hours. Would a relay version last 8 hours? That’s definitely not must-see television.

On June 9, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the triathlon relay will be a part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But it isn’t as long as I had initially imagined. The specs for this particularly relay is that each of four team members run mini-triathlons. Instead of say, swimming 1.5 kilometers, cycling 38.48 kilometers, and then running for 2.5 kilometers like they do at the Olympics, the relay triathletes will instead each swim for 250 meters, cycle for 7 kilometer, and run for 1.7 kilometers. With those significantly shorter distances, four triathletes can complete a race in less than 90 minutes.

Where did this idea come from? The IOC, in a way, has their own innovation lab called the Youth Olympic Games (YOG). As a reaction to growing concerns of obesity in children, the IOC created the Youth Olympic Games, a smaller-scale Olympics for athletes aged 14 to 18. The first YOG was featured in Singapore in 2010, where 3600 athletes from over 200 nations came together to compete in 26 sports.

One of those sports was the Mixed Triathlon Relay. Another was 3-on-3 basketball.

What’s on the horizon? AT the 2018 Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games, athletes will compete in dance sport -more specifically, break dancing.

Will you be 14 to 18 in 2018? Are you an amazing at headspins, airflares, robot moves and the baby swipe? Then here’s your chance to compete in Buenos Aires at the Youth Olympic Games, and potentially, legitimize breakdancing as sport to the point where the IOC asks, “so you think you can dance at the Olympics?”

Jonny and Alistair Brownlee on their way to silver and gold at the Rio Olympics.

I have friends who participate in triathlons and ironman competitions, grueling three-stage events of swimming, cycling and running so alien to the ways in which I can or desire to spend my free time, that I can only silently wonder – Are these guys from a different planet?

Alas, triathletes are earthlings like you and me. They are just far more focused, obsessive, competitive and determined about swimming, cycling and running than I am. When I learned that Alistair and Jonathan (Jonny) Brownlee, two brothers from Yorkshire, England, won gold and silver respectively in the triathlon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, I took notice, wondering if the fact that they were brothers helped them to the podium. In fact, this is the second Olympics in a row that the Brownlee Brothers made it to the podium, with Alistair winning gold and Jonny bronze in the London Games.

I learned they are indeed different, not so much that they diverge from homo sapien anatomy and psychology, but that they differ from me by significant degrees. I came across this site entitled “11 Traits of Top-Notch Triathletes“, which showed me that while I may be a tad measure better than some on these traits, I am leagues behind triathletes in all of them.

  1. We can deftly balance a jam-packed schedule.
  2. We are maxed out on self-discipline.
  3. We’re laser-focused about our goals.
  4. We take goals one step further.
  5. Pain management is fun for us.
  6. We welcome obstacles, adversity and pressure.
  7. We’re in love with our sport.
  8. We are persistent and determined (with a dash of stubbornness.)
  9. We are competitive, both with ourselves and others.
  10. We love to share our knowledge and convert our friends.
  11. We know that it takes one to know one.


Here are quotes from the Brownlee brothers, relevant to some of those traits:

We are maxed out on self-discipline.: “…training is what I love. Those sessions have been harder than races: a few times a week absolutely killing myself, going to bed not being able to sleep because my legs hurt so much, getting up in the morning and not being able to walk because my ankles were so stiff. It’s been like that for the last six months with a few bumps and injuries along the way. That’s all of it, but the training is what I love doing. Killing myself to finish a session.” Alistair (ESPN)

We’re laser-focused about our goals.: “I don’t like this attitude of, ‘I had a bad race but it’s a learning experience.’ That’s a very convenient excuse for a lot of people, why it’s a good reason to have bad performances when it’s not.” Alistair (BBC)

We take goals one step further.: “I thought I’d be an awful injured athlete. I thought it would drive me crazy not being able to do anything, but I’m actually very good at changing my goal to a different one. Instead of focusing my training, I was trying to be the best kind of injured athlete I could possibly be. That involved being the best use of crutches in the world – my left leg didn’t touch the ground for four weeks. Straight away, I got on the phone to the nutritionist to ask how I could heal it. What were the best possible things I could eat? I got told all the usual – protein shakes, eat lots of cherries, that kind of thing. I made myself the best sort of nutrition plan in the world. I don’t think I could have done a better job of giving it the best possible healing.” Jonny (BBC)

Pain management is fun for us.: It would seem quite strange to a lot of people, that you could actually enjoy physically hurting yourself. It doesn’t seem to make sense. I don’t know where it comes from. I think in some ways that it’s not quite escapism, but everyone has a state of mind, or something that they enjoy doing or something that takes them away from everyone else, and maybe that’s been it for me.” Alistair (BBC)

We welcome obstacles, adversity and pressure.: “I’ve had other days where I’ve thought ‘Yeah, I could have done things a lot better there. I didn’t do that well’. And then I’ve had races where I’ve gone into it thinking ‘I’m going to really struggle to win this, I’m only going to win this either by sheer guts or by being a bit clever about it’, and I’ve pulled it off. They’re very, very satisfying races.” Alistair (BBC)

We are competitive, both with ourselves and others.: “We’ve been doing races that are low key and supposed to be fun. In 2012, we raced the Yorkshire cross country championships, and although we were first and second, we’d had a busy week and should just have been running together. Instead, with a kilometre to go, we were absolutely maxing out. It was a couple of weeks later that Alistair tore his Achilles. That race probably went a long way to doing that. If both of us had backed off for the last 10-15 seconds, which we could have easily done, then we would have been fine. We should really have thought, ‘It’s January 2012, the Olympics are eight months away, why are we racing each other?'” Jonny (BBC)

So, is there any advantage to the Brownlee’s being brothers? The answer, as Alistair related in this Yorkshire Post article, is yes.

We both know how important we have been, pushing each other on over the years. From everything, to just motivation to get out of the door in the morning – if you know your little brother is going to go training you are going to go training, too – to being able to travel the world together. That has been really important over the years. Over the last three months we have done almost every session together, even the very hard sessions where we are pushing each other as hard as we can. There is no-one else in the world that can do that with each other, but we have done that time and time again, four or five times a week in the last three months, and that has been absolutely crucial.

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!