Brazil’s Olympic Swimming, Sailing Venue Is ‘Basically Raw Sewage,’ Investigation Finds

CREDIT: AP Photo/Leo Correa

This July 27, 2015 aerial photo shows the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. An Associated Press analysis of water quality found dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage in Olympic and Paralympic venues. The Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, which was largely cleaned up in recent years, was thought be safe for rowers and canoers. Yet AP tests found its waters to be among the most polluted for Olympic sites.

An unprecedented amount of human poop is festering in Rodrigo de Freitas Lake and Copacabana Beach, where hundreds of swimmers and boaters are scheduled to compete in next year’s summer Olympics and Paralympics, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Published Thursday by reporters Brad Brooks and Jenny Barchfield, the investigation found “dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria” from untreated sewage in the country’s Olympic venues. The high levels of contamination risk seriously sickening Olympic athletes, some of whom have already experienced fevers, vomiting, and diarrhea, according to the report. One expert told the AP that, if athletes ingest even three tablespoons of the water, they have a 99 percent risk of infection.

“What you have there is basically raw sewage,” said John Griffith, a marine biologist who examined and evaluated the AP’s investigation. “It’s all the water from the toilets and the showers and whatever people put down their sinks, all mixed up, and it’s going out into the beach waters.”

Brazilian officials assured the AP water will be safe in time for the 2016 games, which is something they’ve been saying for a while. Indeed, this is far from the first time the public has been warned about the foulness of Brazil’s Olympic venues. But the investigation made it hard to see how that would happen considering the country’s history of water pollution from its less-than-modern sewage system. The AP describes it like this:

Extreme water pollution is common in Brazil, where the majority of sewage is not treated. Raw waste runs through open-air ditches to streams and rivers that feed the Olympic water sites.

As a result, Olympic athletes are almost certain to come into contact with disease-causing viruses that in some tests measured up to 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.

Despite decades of official pledges to clean up the mess, the stench of raw sewage still greets travelers touching down at Rio’s international airport. Prime beaches are deserted because the surf is thick with putrid sludge, and periodic die-offs leave the Olympic lake, Rodrigo de Freitas, littered with rotting fish.

What’s more, people are already swimming in these waters. People hoping to compete in the Olympics are scheduled to perform a triathlon qualifier event at Copacabana on Sunday, and rowers are scheduled for a Wednesday test run at Rodrigo de Freitas Lake. Nearly 1,400 athletes are expected to be exposed to those waters next year, the AP report said.

Water is a huge problem for Brazil — not only because of contamination, but because of an intense, long-standing drought. The drought not only adds stress to the country’s water supply during a major sporting event, but presumably means there’s little officials could do to dilute contaminated waters.

This is not the first time poor environmental conditions have threatened a major sporting event. Just last month in Santiago, Chile, the Copa America soccer tournament coincided with dangerous smog levels in the city. Extreme heat exacerbated by climate change caused suspension of outdoor play at the Australian Open last summer. And when Brazil hosted the World Cup last year, experts warned that the effects of climate change could threaten players’ health in the future.

As environmental problems continue to threaten large sporting events, it’s worth noting that large sporting events themselves also can have negative impacts on the environment. Air travel in Brazil during the World Cup, for example, was expected to produce the equivalent of 2.72 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, which is the same as approximately 560,000 cars driving for a year. One of the stadiums constructed for the World Cup was also built in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.