Faster, higher, stronger … and dirtier. Just five days from the Rio 2016 Olympics opening ceremony, a major study threatens a sixth, unwanted addition to the Games’ famous five-circle emblem: a brown ring.
Key bodies of water are teeming with dangerous levels of bacteria, viruses, and raw human sewage.
“Don’t put your head under water,” Dr Valerie Harwood of the University of South Florida warned athletes and tourists.
Last year, the first results of the Associated Press study showed viral levels up to 1.7 million times worse than would be considered dangerous in the US. Ingesting just three tablespoons of water would result in “violent” illness.
Sixteen months later, despite Rio officials’ promises, infectious adenovirus readings are still present in 90% of test sites, including two major watersports venues.
“That’s a very, very, very high percentage,” Harwood said. “Seeing that level of human pathogenic virus is pretty much unheard of in surface waters in the US. You would never, ever see these levels because we treat our waste water.”
The two worst locations are Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, the rowing venue, and Gloria Marina, the sailing base. Some 1400 athletes will compete in these waters, with Australians and New Zealanders seen as prime medal contenders.
Sailors and rowers have reportedly doused oars in bleach, testing better suits and taking antibiotics. Open-water swimmers and triathletes will have to swim through the filth and not inhale too much.
Ipanema and Copacabana, the city’s two famous beaches, are also overrun with viruses. Rio expects hundreds of thousands of tourists to flood the city; many could get sick swimming as the temperature tops 30C over the next fortnight. One reading spiked nearly 50 times what would be permitted in California.
Some, including the city’s mayor, have brushed off the scare, rubbishing the notion of the world’s elite athletes sailing or swimming through garbage, condoms, syringes, vehicles and bacteria.
After all, the Olympics have a rich history of pre-Games fears and scares including Beijing’s smog (2008), Moscow’s boycotts (1980), Montreal’s bankruptcy (1976), Hitler’s Berlin (1936), Amsterdam’s corruption (1928) and Athens’ unreadiness (2000 … and ditto for the city’s first modern Games in 1896).
With the Zika virus, political unrest, Russian doping scandal, unfinished venues and accommodation, Rio may have trumped them all. Officials may just have to hope for another Olympic tradition to surface: somehow, the Games always seem to turn out “all right on the night”.