Is an Olympic Race Worth Your Health?

The promise Brazil made to clean up its waterways was a major part of its winning bid to host the 2016 Olympics and has been foreseen as one of the event’s “biggest legacies” for the country (1). Rio de Janiero pledged to reduce pollution by 80% in Guanabara Bay, the designated location for water events, ahead of the Olympic games this August (2). Yet, recent reports have shed light on the fact that no significant changes have been made to date, in polluting practices or water quality. With the 2016 Olympics just around the corner, major red flags concerning health risks to water-competing athletes are being raised.

The first Associated Press (AP) water tests conducted in July showed “disease causing viruses directly linked to human sewage at levels 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the United States or Europe”(1). Areas of testing have included the Marina da Gloria, Copacabana Beach, Ipanema Beach, Guanabara Bay and the middle of the Olympic lagoon. All of these areas will host many of the Olympic’s water sport competitions, such as: rowing, sailing, triathlon; these areas are also estimated to draw in foreign travelers attracted to Rio de Janiero’s renowned beaches.

New testing by the AP reveals that previous beliefs of dilution of contamination in the deeper waterways and main areas for the sailing competitions are incorrect. Tests have shown that the area from the shoreline to 1 km out in Guanabara Bay, where sailors will compete and typically “get utterly drenched”, are equally contaminated (1).

Kristina Mena, an expert in waterborne viruses and public health professor of University of Texas, notes that this type of contamination would warrant the immediate closing of beaches in United States (1)


Why is this of Concern?

The more alarming part of this contamination is that viral levels were measured at about 30,000 times what is considered to be ‘highly alarming’ in the United States or Europe, a year prior to the Olympic trials. In September, Enteroviruses were found in these waters as well, which is a genus of viruses known to cause respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, and sometimes even serious brain and heart inflammation.(1).

Enteroviruses are among many other pathogens identified throughout Rio waters that are indicative of sewage contamination due to the entry of untreated wastewater by various routes into the ocean water (1).

Currently, the WHO has only required that Brazil to conduct bacterial testing of their waters, although past studies have shown that bacteria do not last long in the salty, sunny conditions, which have minimal effects on viruses [4]. They have also failed to require regular viral testing by Olympic Officials.

The International Sailing Federation (ISAF) has issued a recent update as of November 3 2015, outlining what has been done to address the water contamination and plans for further preparation for the 2016 games, available below (3).

The question is thus raised: are the waters of Rio de Janiero going to be safe for the 2016 Olympic games?

Many athletes and officials are unsure of the exact risk levels posed by the waters. However, we can expect continued coverage of any changes in water contamination levels. There are certainly hopes for plans of reduction of water contamination to be carried out, as we near the start of the Games, but unfortunately there are still many questions regarding whether athletes’ health and safety can be ensured (1).






Current Update on Water Cleanup Plans:


Rio 2016 Olympic Games Schedule:


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