Why the International Olympic Committee is Worried About Water Quality in Rio

Viruses and bacteria may threaten swimmers in the 2016 summer games

gross rio
Phil Clarke Hill/In Pictures/Corbis

It looks like large governing bodies get grossed out, too: the International Olympic Committee will now order Brazilian officials to expand water quality testing leading up to the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro. While previous tests only measured bacteria, the new tests will take viruses into account after an investigation by the Associated Press found dangerously high levels of both bacteria and viruses in sites that will be used for swimming and boating.

The investigation found that athletes competing in water sports during Rio’s 2016 Summer Olympics are at risk of becoming sick and being unable to compete, and some already training in the city have become violently ill. The AP traced the infections to a high level of human waste and sewage polluting the city’s waters in what the news organization is calling the “first independent comprehensive testing for both viruses and bacteria at the Olympic sites.”

Officials have promised to clean up Rio’s beaches and bays for decades, but the pollution continues to mount. Many of the city’s famous beaches are deserted because of raw sewage washing up in the surf and regular die-offs fill the official Olympic lake with rotting fish, write Brad Brooks and Jenny Barchfield for the AP.

"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. Those kinds of things would be shut down immediately if found [in the U.S.]," John Griffith, a marine biologist at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, told Brooks and Barchfield.

Brazilian officials have promised that the waters will be clean by next summer, but the government does not test for viruses. Rio natives often develop antibodies to the contaminants in the water, but foreign athletes may not have as much luck – and many are already getting sick while training there, report Brooks and Barchfield. At first, IOC officials stood by the original assessment, saying there was little risk to athletes. However, yesterday the IOC announced it would start testing for viruses in Rio's waters after a recommendation by the World Health Organization, Stephen Wade reports for the AP.

“The WHO is saying they are recommending viral testing,” IOC medical director Dr. Richard Budgett told The Guardian. “We’ve always said we will follow the expert advice, so we will now be asking the appropriate authorities in Rio to follow the expert advice which is for viral testing. We have to follow the best expert advice.”

The Brazilian government has a history of biting off more than they can chew with new infrastructure developments. Brazilian officials were roundly criticized for overspending on building projects in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup, including building a brand-new, $300 million stadium in an Amazonian city where professional soccer games regularly attract about 588 people. At the time, many (including Brazilian soccer star Pele) criticized the government for diverting funds to building new soccer stadiums in a country already rife with them instead of fixing infrastructure and building schools. 

As part of Rio’s Olympic bid, officials pledged to restore the city’s waterways by investing $4 billion in sanitation infrastructure, but critics say these are chronic issues that can’t be fixed in a year. With just a year to go before the 2016 Olympics, athletes may have little choice than to push ahead with their training schedules, regardless of what's floating in the water.

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