Sailing Through the Trash and Sewage of Guanabara Bay

  • 2015-09-01
  • The New Yorker

Among the things Olympic sailors have reported seeing while training in and testing out the venues of Guanabara Bay, one of the sites for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, are mattresses, cars, washing machines, trees, tables, televisions, couches, and chairs, as well as dead dogs, horses, and cats. The Brazilian sailor Lars Grael, a two-time Olympic medalist, told the Times last year that he has seen human bodies on four separate occasions.

Now, with one year left before the Summer Games, and with another round of sailing test events just concluded, Olympic officials are downplaying reports on the heavily polluted water venues, most notably a five-month investigation conducted by the Associated Press, which found the waters “chronically contaminated,” and revealed dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage. “It’s a latrine,” Mario Moscatelli, a Brazilian biologist and environmental advocate for the bay, told me back in May. Contaminated water and sewage flows out of nearby favelas into the bay; competition will be scheduled around optimal tidal flow to reduce exposure, but Moscatelli fears that sailors may collide with debris and become exposed to water that could cause ear infections, conjunctivitis, and mycosis. In a statement, Rio 2016 organizers said that the water is safe and that the health and welfare of the athletes is a top priority for the Olympic organizers. “Independent testing in the competition area of the Guanabara Bay venue has consistently proven the water quality to meet relevant international standards,” the statement read, adding that Rio organizers are meeting weekly with government authorities to monitor the problem and improve conditions. (As is noted in their report, the AP studied the water for viruses as well as bacteria, while the organizers relied “on bacteria testing only.”)

Sailors have been getting a taste of Guanabara for the past two years, during a series of test events hosted in Rio in the lead-up to the Olympics. In one race, the Brazilian sailor Thomas Low-Beer slammed into what he believed was a sofa, capsizing his vessel and sending the crew tumbling into the water. In another, the Danish sailor Allan Nørregaard had just edged into first place when his boat came to a dead stop; after the entire fleet passed by, Nørregaard peered over the side to discover a large plastic bag wrapped around his centerboard. “I have sailed around the world for twenty years and this is the most polluted place I’ve ever been,” Nørregaard told the AP, adding that some people went into the water and came up with red dots on their bodies. “I don’t know what’s in the water,” he said, “but it’s definitely not healthy.

Image Credit: By Alin Meceanu