U.S., Rio officials to test polluted Olympic bay before August competition

Guanabara Bay
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US Sailing says it’s working with the U.S. Olympic Committee, which will combine with Rio de Janeiro authorities to test the water at a 2016 Olympic sailing venue before American sailors travel there for a competition that begins Aug. 2.

US Sailing will send athletes to the competition, an Olympic test event, despite reports of concerning pollution levels at the Guanabara Bay venue, and the sailors may take inoculations or antibiotics based on the results of water testing.

“We’re well aware of the concerns of water quality in Guanabara Bay,” U.S. Olympic Sailing managing director Josh Adams said. “We’re taking the steps necessary so that the athletes are prepared.”

The Guanabara Bay water quality is “very, very bad” compared to most sailing venues, the head of competitions for the International Sailing Federation told the Associated Press on Monday. Sailing’s governing body may conduct independent water-quality tests, the AP reported.

Sailors from around the world agreed that the water quality in the 148-square-mile bay must improve, in interviews with the AP and The New York Times.

Adams, who plans to go to the test event with US Sailing athletes, last visited Guanabara Bay in November 2012 and is in regular contact with the International Sailing Federation and other countries’ national governing bodies for sailing about Olympic preparations, including cleaning up the bay.

“We are taking actions in our own hands and testing the water,” Adams said, “to determine what kind of inoculations or antibiotics we have to take.”

It’s a standard measure, Adams said. The U.S. also tested the sailing venue before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where an algal bloom threatened the waters but was cleaned up in time.

“As is always the case, we’re working with the organizing committee and the local authorities to ensure that our athletes are able to safely compete and have the resources they need to be successful,” the USOC said in a statement.

About six U.S. sailors recently visited Guanabara Bay for training or competition over two trips, one year ago and again in January. The venue regularly hosts local sailing events, and its biggest competition was the 2007 Pan American Games.

“I would say I’ve sailed in worse waters before, for sure,” said American Chris Barnard, who has sailed internationally for six years and competed in Guanabara Bay in January. “I would say that venue, it’s not the worst, but it could use some cleaning.”

Barnard said he’s never taken preventative medication due to water quality issues before.

Another U.S. sailor, 2012 Olympian Paige Railey, said Rio de Janeiro is her favorite sailing venue in the world out of her 12 years of international experience. She last visited for training in September, where she said she didn’t find any of the reported overt problems at the portions of the bay she sailed in.

“We went swimming in the water,” she said. “I flipped over [in my boat]. I’ve been in the water, have had it splashing in my face. None of us had any issues.”

Railey plans to spend a lot of time in Rio de Janeiro over the next two years training for the Olympics.

“It’s important to note that Brazil has a pretty rich history in sailing, and there’s a lot of competition that goes on in Guanabara Bay,” Adams said. “A lot of Olympians over the years have traveled there to sailing competitions. It’s not like all of a sudden we’re descending on a place that has never hosted a sailing event before.”

Pollution flowing into the bay hoped to be cut by 80 percent by the Olympics, but the new best-case scenario is “over 50 percent” could be cut, according to the AP.

Rio’s top environmental official said recent tests showed that fecal contamination in the Olympic regatta area was within “satisfactory” standards in Brazil, according to the Times.

US Sailing expects to send more than 20 athletes to the test event in August.

“As far as we can tell, conditions haven’t changed recently, people are just becoming more aware of it,” Adams said. “We are in favor of efforts to clean up the bay and expect a lot to be done in this area.”

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