Chasing Olympic Gold in Raw Sewage

As the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro near, concerns arise over the city’s polluted water venues. Here's how a lack of wastewater infrastructure affects a city of 12 million.
Chasing Olympic Gold in Raw Sewage

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One year from now, about 10,000 of the world’s athletes will converge in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics. There’s just one problem — at least for athletes who will swim and boat in Rio’s waterways: The water is highly contaminated with human sewage, which means exposure to bacteria and viruses.

A recent water-quality analysis of Olympic venues conducted by the Associated Press revealed high levels of bacteria and viruses despite assurance from Brazilian officials that the water would be safe for athletes by the time the games begin next August. According to the AP report, athletes training in Rio have already become ill with fevers, vomiting and diarrhea.

“This is by far the worst water quality we’ve ever seen in our sailing careers,” says Ivan Bulaja, the coach of an Austrian sailing team that has been training in Rio recently, in the AP story. “The Olympic medal is something that you live your life for and it can really happen that just a few days before the competition you get ill and you’re not able to perform at all.”

One team member, David Hussl, told the AP that he and his fellow sailors wash their faces immediately with bottled water when they get splashed by waves and shower as soon as they return to shore. Yet, he has already been ill several times with a fever and stomach problems.

“It’s always one day completely in bed and then usually not sailing for two or three days,” he says in the story.

Hussl is one of nearly 1,400 athletes who are expected to compete in the 2016 games by either sailing in the waters of Guanabara Bay, swimming off Copacabana Beach, or canoeing and rowing on Rodrigo de Freitas Lake. The AP commissioned four rounds of testing at those venues, as well as the surf off Ipanema Beach — a popular tourist area though no Olympic events will be held there. As part of the testing, 37 samples were checked for three types of human adenovirus, rotavirus, enterovirus and fecal coliforms. According to the report, the viral concentrations in all tests were roughly equivalent to what’s found in raw sewage.

Kristina Mena, an American expert in risk assessment for waterborne viruses, examined the AP’s data and estimated athletes have a 99 percent chance of infection if they ingest just three teaspoons of water, though sickness would depend on immunity and other factors.

Dr. Alberto Chebabo, head of Rio’s Infectious Diseases Society, told the AP raw sewage has created  “endemic” public health problems in Brazil. However, by adolescence, Brazilians have been so exposed to viruses that they build up antibodies, a protection foreign athletes and tourists won’t necessarily have.

The AP’s testing was the first independent analysis for viruses and bacteria at the Olympic venues. Brazilian officials and the International Olympic Committee have only conducted tests for bacteria levels, which are what Brazilian water-quality regulations are based on. They say the effort to provide safe water venues for competition remains on track. Although fecal coliform levels exceeded the legal limit in some of the samples the AP tested, the presence of viruses was more prominent and widespread.

“We’ve had reassurances from the World Health Organization and others that there is no significant risk to athlete health,” says Dr. Richard Budgett, the medical director for the International Olympic Committee, in the AP story. “There will be people pushing for all sorts of other tests, but we follow the expert advice and official advice on how to monitor water effectively.”

The AP says water and health experts are pushing for regulatory agencies to include viral testing in the determination of water quality, since viruses — not bacteria — are the cause of most illnesses related to water activities.

This dilemma for the 2016 Olympics’ water venues has been decades in the making. Although Rio’s population has skyrocketed to 12 million, appropriate wastewater treatment infrastructure has not kept up. According to an article on, a news site that brings visibility to local issues, about one-third of the city is not connected to a formal sanitation system. And even in areas where wastewater systems exist, only about half of the sewage is treated before entering Rio’s waterways. Beaches are often deemed unsafe for swimming and fecal coliform levels in the water can reach up to 200 times greater than what is allowed in the U.S. According to Mauro Kleiman, a professor of urbanism at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, it’s a nationwide problem for Brazil and government officials have historically downplayed the value of sanitation, treating it more as a cost than an investment.

“There is a hierarchy of investments,” he told “Industry first, then what is left over goes to urban projects, first in areas of high income, then finally with the poor always being the last to receive government investment.”

In 1995, the government created several programs aimed at increasing access to water and sanitation. Kleiman says the programs have partially improved water access, but have done little to address sanitation issues. A study done by an organization working to improve sanitation in the country showed only 7 percent of 114 major projects had been completed by the end of 2011 with more than half of the projects stalled or delayed.

“It is written [in the program] that these investments in sanitation should be happening, but they are not being carried out, at least to the level they should be,” Kleiman says in the article.

In Rio, most citizens without access to a sanitation system live in neighborhoods that surround Guanabara Bay. Some improvements have been made, and now about half of the sewage that reaches the bay is treated, according to Rio officials. However, the bid to host the Olympics promised that 80 percent of it would be treated by the start of the 2016 games. Officials now acknowledge there isn’t enough time to meet that promise, but they’re holding firm that water venues will be safe for athletes.

“Brazilian authorities promised the moon in order to win their Olympic bid, and as usual they’re not making good on those promises,” says Mario Moscatelli, a biologist who has long lobbied for the cleanup of Rio’s waterways, in the AP story. “I’m sad but not surprised.”


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