Get Out Of The Water: Thoughts about Rio 2016 for Swimmers, Triathletes, and Aquatic Athletes

  • Graphic Madeleine Gendreau

Tristan D’Amours was once an open water and pool swimmer and competed in the sport for over ten years.

As a swimmer, I can tell you that the chances of swallowing water, or at least having water in your mouth, at one point in a race–especially a 5-10 km open water race–are very, very high. No one cares to have taken in a bit of water, we’re in a race.

No time to consciously try not to take in a little water, there is way too much to worry about anyway. However, when taking in a bit of water during a race can lead to a serious disease, there is a big problem.

The Associated Press released last week their most recent round of testing in the Rio de Janeiro waterways, which will host swimmers and triathletes during the 2016 Summer Olympics. The results were scary.

AP appointed Brazilian virologist Fernando Spilki, coordinator of the environmental quality program at Feevale University in Southern Brazil, to “carry out viral and bacterial testing of the water bodies where Olympic athletes will have contact with water during the 2016 Summer Olympics.”

An excerpt from the document reads:

“Rio’s waters have suffered from heavy human sewage pollution for decades, but authorities vowed in their 2009 winning Olympic bid that cleaning the waterways would be a great legacy for the event. But the AP testing found the waters are still rife with disease-causing viruses and bacteria, less than a year from the opening ceremony.”

AP goes as far as stating that the waterways are “as rife with pathogens far offshore as they are nearer land, where raw sewage flows into them from fetid rivers and storm drains.”

Following the results, it makes you wonder why they chose Rio to host the Games in the first place.

Bottom line, there is no dilution in the bay or lagoon where the events will take place. Sailors will be affected and competing away from the shore will not reduce health risks. AP reports that Olympic sailor Erik Heil had to be treated for MRSA, a flesh-eating bacteria, shortly after competing in a test run in Rio last August.

Additionally, swimmers and triathletes will have the highest risk with direct contact to the water for part, or the totality, or the event. It would be catastrophic for athletes to contract a serious disease while performing at the Olympics.

Don’t just think of the recurring Olympians, but the first-time and “one-time-only” Olympians that sacrificed part of their lives to get to that very moment. Athletes will be forced to decide whether they want to chase their dream or not develop a serious infection or disease.

In all seriousness this situation is an aberration to me. When the International Olympic Committee decides on a winning bid for city to host the Olympics, what do they take in consideration?

According to the IOC webpage, the total process for a winning host city takes a total of ten years. The bidding process itself takes three years, and during those three years, the IOC states that they visit host cities.

“The IOC Evaluation Commission will focus on reviewing the Games operations to ensure successful delivery,” says the IOC’s description page for a bidding process. “It will also review legacy planning and the Games experience for all stakeholders, with a focus on the athlete experience to determine the challenges and opportunities in the abovementioned areas.”

If cleaning the waterways for open water events was such a high priority for Rio while they campaigned for the right to host the Olympics, why weren’t they tested more often? Why hasn’t the IOC stepped up more for the sake of their athletes?

If Rio was the consensus, romantic, perfect choice, why did the IOC not help the Brazilian Olympic Committee to achieve their goal? I don’t mind them picking a city they thought was good but had some flaws, before both parties worked together to hold an optimal event.

That being said, bidding cities should have to go through rigorous testings on facilities already in place before being given the hosting rights. If the IOC discovers an unacceptable result in one of their testing, it would raise a red flag for the ability of the city to host the Games.

Let’s expand on the concept of the athlete’s experience during the Games. Having accommodations that would be up to the athlete’s standards is one thing, having an ideal facility in order for the athlete to concentrate on his sport without having to worry for his health is another.

If a city cannot provide an athlete with basic features such as acceptable water for open-water swimmers, triathletes, sailors, and canoers/rowers, that city cannot host the Olympics. It may not be inclusive to every city in the world but I believe that this is fair to the most important part of this event–which is sometimes taken for granted–the athlete.

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