Rio de Janeiro
AP

New AP test: Rio’s Olympic water consistently contaminated

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The Olympic waters in this city are more widely contaminated by sewage than previously known and pose a greater threat to athletes’ health ahead of next year’s games, according to new results from tests commissioned by The Associated Press.

Expanded analysis of Rio’s waterways shows that high viral and in some cases bacterial counts are found not just along shorelines where raw sewage runs into waterbodies, but far offshore where athletes will compete in sailing, rowing and canoeing.

That means there is no dilution factor in the bay or lagoon where events will take place.

“It’s going to increase the exposure of the people who come into contact with those waters,” said Kristina Mena, a U.S. expert in waterborne viruses. “If we saw those levels here in the United States on beaches, officials would likely close those beaches.”

In July, the AP reported that its first round of tests showed viruses causing stomach and respiratory illnesses and more rarely heart and brain inflammation at levels up to 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the U.S. or Europe.

The report prompted sports officials to promise they would do their own viral testing. Those pledges took on further urgency in August, after pre-Olympic rowing and sailing events in Rio led to illnesses among athletes nearly double the acceptable limit in the U.S.

Nevertheless, Olympic and World Health Organization officials have flip-flopped on promises to carry out their own viral testing in the wake of the AP’s July report.

At issue are two kinds of testing.

Brazilian, Olympic and WHO officials now say Brazil needs only to conduct testing for bacterial “markers” of pollution to determine water quality. That’s the standard for nations around the globe to monitor waterbodies, mostly because it’s been historically easier and cheaper.

“The health and safety of athletes is always a top priority and there is no doubt that water within the field of play meets the relevant standards,” the Rio 2016 Olympic organizing committee said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Rio 2016 follows the expert advice of the World Health Organization, whose guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments recommend classifying water through a regular program of microbial water quality testing.”

However, in recent years technological advances have made it simpler and less expensive to monitor viral levels, too.

Studies dating back decades have shown little to no correlation between the levels of bacteria pathogens in water, which quickly break down in salty and sunny conditions like those in tropical Brazil, and the presence of viruses, which have been shown to last for months, and in some cases years.

Rio’s waterways, like those of many developing nations, are extremely contaminated because most of the city’s sewage is untreated, flowing into Guanabara Bay, the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon and the famous Copacabana Beach.

Rio won the right to host the Olympics based on a lengthy bid document that promised to clean up the city’s scenic waterways by improving sewage sanitation, a pledge that was intended to be one of the event’s biggest legacies.

Brazilian officials now acknowledge that won’t happen.

The AP’s first published results were based on samples taken along the shores of the lagoon where rowing and canoeing events will be held. Other samples were drawn from the marina where sailors enter the water and in the Copacabana Beach surf, where marathon and triathlon swimming will take place. Ipanema Beach, popular with tourists and where many of the expected 350,000 foreign visitors will take a dip during the games, was also tested.

Since then, the AP expanded its testing to include offshore sampling sites inside Olympic sailing courses in Guanabara Bay and in the middle of the lagoon where rowing and canoeing lanes were located during recent test events.

Not only has the AP testing since August found the waterbodies to be consistently virus-laden throughout, but it also captured a spike in the bacterial fecal coliforms in the lagoon – to over 16 times the amount permitted under Brazilian law.

Athletes have made efforts to avoid falling ill, from bleaching rowing oars to preemptively taking antibiotics, which have no effect on viruses, to simply hosing off their bodies the second they finish competing.

Despite that, athletes at test events in August still fell ill. The World Rowing Federation reported that 6.7 percent of 567 rowers got sick at a junior championship event in Rio. The International Sailing Federation said just over 7 percent of sailors competing at a mid-August Olympic warm-up event in Guanabara Bay fell ill.

By comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum illness rate for swimming is 3.6 percent – which many experts say is too high.

Offshore water samples taken by the AP for the past three months were 30,000 times higher than what is considered alarming in the U.S. and Europe – at a point 600 meters (yards) offshore and within the Sugarloaf sailing race course; at a spot 1,300 meters (yards) off the shore within the Naval School course; and at a point 200 meters from the shoreline in the Olympic lagoon where rowing lanes are located.

The high levels of sewage-linked pathogens found in the offshore sailing courses “show that … there are many, many points where sewage enters the bay,” said Brazilian virologist Fernando Spilki, coordinator of the environmental quality program at Feevale University in southern Brazil, who is conducting monthly tests for the AP.

“These pathogens we’re looking for, especially the viruses, are able to migrate in the currents in a big way,” he said.

VIDEO: Aerial Rio Olympic Park progress update

USA Gymnastics faces change, golden glow gone amid scandal

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — On the floor of the Honda Center, the P&G Gymnastics Championships are imbued with a sense of normalcy and routine. Of tumbling runs and coaching tweaks. Of blaring music and chalk dust. Of leaps and leotards. Of the search for who’s next.

There is no sign of an organization in crisis trying to finds its way following a stormy year that’s seen one of the U.S. Olympic movement’s marquee brands shaken from the head of its national office in Indianapolis down to the smallest of its 3,546 member clubs.

To find the fallout from allegations of sexual abuse against a longtime former national team doctor and a subsequent independent review that called for significant changes in the manner in which USA Gymnastics protects its athletes, you need to pull back.

While the women’s field went through final preparations Thursday for Friday night’s opening round of competition (TV schedule here), in a hotel conference room across the street 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher and fellow retired gymnast Rachael Denhollander called for several members of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors to resign, insisting the organization needs to make a clean break from its past before it can begin moving forward.

“A complete change in USAG leadership is needed starting at the top,” said Dantzscher, part of a bronze-medal-winning team from Sydney.

In a convention center a few miles away, hundreds of gym operators and coaches tried to figure out how to best implement the guidelines outlined by Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor who made 70 recommendations in June — all immediately adopted — designed to provide athletes, their parents and coaches better safeguards and greater recourse against accused abusers.

In Michigan, Larry Nassar — who spent nearly 30 years working as an osteopath for USA Gymnastics’ elite athletes — sat in prison after pleading guilty to three child pornography charges. Nassar is still awaiting trial on nearly two dozen other charges while also facing more than 100 civil lawsuits claiming he abused female athletes during his tenure at both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State. Many are in mediation and four cases in California are tied up in the courts.

The golden glow from the Final Five’s medal-hogging performance in Rio faded quickly. While Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez spent the last 12 months enjoying celebrity, USA Gymnastics played defense, figuring out where to go after being named as a co-defendant in civil cases filed against Nassar.

Longtime women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi — who along with husband Bela was named a co-defendant in some of the lawsuits — retired shortly after Rio. The organization recently pulled out of a deal to purchase the Karolyi Ranch, which has served as the de facto home of the women’s program for nearly two decades.

Steve Penny was forced out as president and chief executive officer in March for mishandling a number of abuse cases. A replacement for Penny will likely be named by September, while Valeri Liukin took over for Karolyi last fall, tasked with both continuing the women’s programs dominance while also creating a more transparent culture.

“It adds a lot of stress, but guess what, we have a lot of great people in the country, a lot of great people,” Liukin said. “Having one bad person doesn’t mean that it’s going to affect the program. We are more careful right now. We take steps to make prevent [abuse] from happening.”

Less than two months removed from Daniels’ report, there are signs of progress. National team members who fly into Houston for training camps must be escorted to the camp with at least two other people along for the ride to avoid any one-on-one interaction. Underage female gymnasts with male coaches who are picked to compete internationally must now travel with a credentialed female chaperone. One-on-one visits to cabins the athletes use during overnight stays by medical staff is now prohibited.

“They need to know that their safety is our utmost priority,” said Rhonda Faehn, the senior vice president of the women’s program. “We need to make sure that they know that and that they feel it.”

That’s at the national level. Policing at a local level is another matter entirely. Denhollander came forward as part of an investigation by The Indianapolis Star that discovered USA Gymnastics collected complaints of improper conduct by over 50 coaches between 1996 and 2006 and regularly declined to forward them on to the authorities unless expressly asked to do so.

The new guidelines require member gyms to go to authorities immediately. Daniels suggested USA Gymnastics consider withholding membership from clubs that decline to do so. The organization also named Toby Stark, a child welfare advocate, as its director of SafeSport. Part of Stark’s mandate is educating members on rules, educational programs, reporting and adjudication services.

Many member clubs have already adopted some of the recommended policies on their own.

Tony Retrosi, owner and coach at Atlantic Gymnastics Training Center in New Hampshire, has long prevented his staff members from having one-on-one electronic media exchanges with underage athletes. It falls in line with best practices put forward by USA Gymnastics in 2015.

There is much to be done. Dantzscher and Denhollander don’t believe real progress is possible until board chairman Paul Parilla, vice chairman Jay Binder and treasurer Bitsy Kelley are removed. All three signed a letter supporting Penny in March after the United States Olympic Committee called for his ouster.

“It is clear that the board intends to conduct business as usual,” Dantzscher said.

Parilla said in June he had no plans to step down, and late Thursday other members of the board of directors issued a statement saying they are “confident our Board officers will continue to lead us through the coming months.”

Yet for all its issues at the top, impact on the sport at the grassroots level has been minimal. USA Gymnastics membership rose by nearly 3 percent from Aug. 1, 2016 to July 31, 2017, to a record high of 198,636, showing that among members belief in the organization’s purpose remains strong.

At some point the smoke will clear. At some point the attention will turn back to what’s happening on the competition floor. Dantzscher’s goal — beyond giving the board of directors a makeover — is her sport embracing the painful but necessary steps required to create true change from “mommy and me” intro classes to the Olympic stage.

Asked if she believes such a change is possible, Dantzscher paused before answering.

“I hope so.”

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MORE: For Gabby Douglas, this break from gymnastics is different

Ragan Smith, Ashton Locklear lead U.S. gymnastics’ new wave

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ANAHEIM, California (AP) — Technically, Ragan Smith never stepped foot on the floor as a competitor at the Rio Olympics as the star-studded U.S. women’s gymnastics team beat a steady and relentless path to the podium on its way to medal after medal after medal.

Not that it mattered to Smith. Technically the 17-year-old was a “replacement athlete,” a fancy description for “alternate.” Funny, she didn’t feel like one as she trained up to and through the games just in case.

“If you ask her, she says she’s an Olympian,” coach Kim Zmeskal Burdette said.

And now she’s the center of attention.

As the “Final Five” take a break and weigh their future Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian are being inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame on Saturday — the 17-year-old Smith finds herself as the face of the program as the P&G Championships begin Friday night.

This weekend marks the first time since 2005 that no one on the previous Olympic team returned to compete the following year, leaving the stage to Smith and the next wave in a program that plans to keep on rolling with Valeri Liukin taking over for retired national coordinator Martha Karolyi.

“The expectations are the same,” said Rhonda Faehn, senior vice president of the women’s program.

P&G CHAMPS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
TV Schedule | Final Five Updates

No big deal or anything. All Smith and company have to do is follow in the footsteps of the most decorated team of all time. That’s fine with Smith and her coach, who won Olympic bronze at age 16 in 1992.

“People ask about pressure and adding pressure and it’s doesn’t if that’s what you were striving for in the first place,” Zmeskal Burdette said. “If you want to be the one people are talking to, it gives you more confidence.”

Something Smith is not lacking. She made a splash in 2016 in her first year as a senior, her tiny size and infectious floor exercise — set to theme from “The Addams Family” — making her instantly recognizable. She’s ditched it for something a little more grown up this year, by design.

“It’s sassy instead of very cute,” Zmeskal-Burdette said. “That’s the character she feels very good with. She is sassy. So be it.”

And a pretty good gymnast in her own right. While she’s talked openly about trying to extend her elite career through the Tokyo Games, Smith is trying to focus on the now.

“I don’t think, ‘Oh the 2020 Olympics,’ I don’t think about that ever really,” she said. “I just have it in the back of my mind as a goal.”

One that remains far off. Biles did the near impossible when she won three consecutive world all-around titles before winning a record-tying five medals in Rio. At this point, Smith would settle for a solid weekend at the Honda Center and a spot as one of four U.S. women at October’s world championships in Montreal.

So far, so good. Smith won the AT&T American Cup in March and seems at ease with being one of the favorites, though not the only one.

Ashton Locklear served as an Olympic alternate along with Smith and is eager to prove she’s more than just a wonder on uneven bars. Riley McCusker shook off a shaky performance at the American Cup — including a frightening dismount on balance beam — to bounce back and win the all-around and the beam at an international meet in Italy a few weeks later.

“That’s the gymnast she is,” coach Maggie Haney said.

One who is hardly afraid of the standards set by those who came before.

“It’s definitely cool being the next generation,” McCusker said. “I think we can prove ourselves and be the same or even better than the last generation.”

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MORE: For Gabby Douglas, this break from gymnastics is different