Guanabara Bay
AP

Ex-World Sailing CEO says he was fired over Rio’s polluted venue

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The former CEO of World Sailing says he was fired for pushing to get rid of polluted Guanabara Bay as the sailing venue for this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Peter Sowrey tried to change the venue, or at least have a “B plan” but says “I was told to gag myself on the subject.”

Andy Hunt took over just two weeks ago as the new CEO, and sailing is still scheduled to begin in August in the sewage-filled bay.

In interviews with The Associated Press, Sowrey and Hunt said the bay — overlooked by the famous Christ the Redeemer monument and Sugarloaf Mountain behind it — may give sailing the kind of television coverage it seldom enjoys.

It could also bring unwanted attention if sailors fall ill, or if floating rubbish — plastic bags to door frames to animal carcasses — fouls rudders and costs someone an Olympic gold medal.

Sowrey proposed moving the event to Buzios, a coastal resort about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Rio that has been host to several large sailing events. Of course, it’s too late now for that change.

Sowrey, who left in December after only five months on the job, came to the governing body from the consulting company Accenture. He acknowledged he had little experience dealing with the politics that drive international sports federations. But he brought business acumen.

“The board felt I was way too aggressive,” Sowrey said. “They basically voted me out. I didn’t resign. The board finally told me to leave.”

Sowrey said looking at Guanabara Bay on “fact-based, data-driven model we would never consider sailing in that quality of water.”

Independent testing of Guanabara Bay conducted by the AP over the last year shows disease-causing viruses linked to human sewage at levels thousands of times above what would be considered alarming in the U.S. or Europe. The tests include the venue for sailing, but also Rio’s Olympic venues for rowing, canoeing, open-water swimming and triathlon.

About 1,600 athletes will compete in these venues during the Olympics, which open Aug. 5, and hundreds more during the subsequent Paralympics.

Experts say athletes will be competing in the viral equivalent of raw sewage with exposure to dangerous health risks almost certain. Many sailors have described the conditions as “sailing in a toilet” or an “open sewer.”

Viruses like those in Guanabara Bay can cause stomach and respiratory ailments that could knock an athlete out of the Olympics.

When he first learned of the AP analysis, Sowrey supported the same kind of independent viral testing. But he was nudged to support the position adopted by the International Olympic Committee, the World Health Organization and local organizers; that the bacteria-only testing was sufficient.

“I was just stepping on toes,” Sowrey said.

Like many of the 35 federations that participate in the Summer and Winter Olympics, World Sailing gets much of income from the IOC. Sowrey and Hunt both said more than half of World Sailing’s annual revenue was from that source.

World Sailing’s executive board, which Sowrey said dismissed him, has two non-voting members — King Harald V of Norway and Constantine, the former king of Greece — and seven voting members. Some are retired Olympians or former heads of national sailing federations.

Sowrey proposed Buzios as a replacement for Guanabara and showed the AP a 20-page dossier detailing the plans.

“I did a plan with Buzios and tried to push it through,” said Sowrey, who also lives part-time in the town. “I couldn’t win that battle, not internally at ISAF (World Sailing) and I couldn’t win it with the organizers. I was perplexed why there was no back-up sailing plan. It’s only sailing after all, it’s not curing cancer.”

Buzios is no longer an option and Hunt knows the looming risks.

“There’ll be huge interest in how the (Olympic) regatta goes, and the problems that take place,” Hunt told the AP.

Hunt has been weaned on sports politics. He was the CEO of the British Olympic Association, and the BOA delegation head for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, and the 2012 London Olympics.

“It (Guanabara) is not ideal,” Hunt said. “For one moment I’m not saying it’s ideal, but I do think there’s a huge amount of effort and attention going into this to ensure the safety of the athletes.”

His main worry is the floating trash, which will be policed during the games by a dozen rubbish collection boats, barriers used to block fetid streams that feed the bay, and helicopters to spot flows of detritus.

A sewer pipe to keep raw sewage from reaching the Marina da Gloria, the launching point during the Olympics, is supposed to be ready by late March but is at least three months behind schedule.

Rio treats only about half of its raw sewage, so bacteria and viruses in the bay are long-term problems without short-term fixes.

“I think it’s hard to say there’s a lot more that could be done,” Hunt said. “If there were limitless resources, maybe there’s more that might be done, but it has to be realistic.”

Hunt noted the bay was the venue for the 2007 Pan American Games, and Rio has held two Olympic sailing test events in the last two years. Hunt described these as “successful,” although many sailors complained about the stench around the marina, and teams took unusual precautions to avoid unnecessary contact with the water.

“I’m completely aware of the possibility and the challenge of how this (Olympic sailing) might get portrayed,” Hunt said. “The ultimate test – if we have delivered a great regatta – will be the response from the sailors.”

 

MORE: Rio Olympics face deep cuts unseen in decades

World short-track speedskating championships will be moved, postponed or canceled

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The International Skating Union announced Tuesday that the world short-track speedskating championships will not proceed as scheduled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Seoul’s Mokdong Ice Rink, where the competition was set to be held March 13-15, held the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships earlier this month but closed on Monday.

The ISU left open the possibility that the championships will be postponed or relocated, but the window to do so may close rapidly.

“Taking into account the uncertain world-wide development of the coronavirus, the limited and uncertain available time slots during the coming weeks and the logistical challenges of potential organizers and participating teams, a postponement and/or relocation of the Championships would be difficult to achieve,” the ISU said. “Nevertheless, a postponement and/or relocation of this Championships might be considered if the circumstances would allow so in due time.”

South Korea is one of short-track speedskating’s traditional powers. Last year, the country dominated the world championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, winning both relays and taking gold in all of the men’s individual races. South Korea also led the medal count on home ice in the 2018 Olympics.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced the cancellation of many events in China, where the illness was first found. The world indoor track and field championships were pushed back a whole year.

With the virus spreading to other regions, other countries’ sports schedules are being affected. Several soccer games are proceeding in empty stadiums in Italy and Iran.

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Daniel Romanchuk’s ascent to marathon stardom accelerated at University of Illinois

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The rise of Daniel Romanchuk has been one of the major stories of this Paralympic cycle. The wheelchair racer was eliminated in the first round of all five of his races in Rio.

But now, he’s the world’s best marathoner with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, a world-record holder on the track and already qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Romanchuk, born with spina bifida, was profiled by NBC Sports Chicago as part of a series of NBC Sports Regional Networks pieces published this week — marking 150 days until the Tokyo Olympics and six months until the Tokyo Paralympics.

NBC RSN Olympic and Paralympic Profiles
NBC Sports Bay Area

Abbey Weitzeil (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Boston
Margaret Bertasi (Rowing) — LINK
Abbey D’Agostino Cooper (Track and Field) — LINK

NBC Sports Chicago
Ryan Murphy (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Northwest
Galen Rupp (Marathon) — LINK
Mariel Zagunis (Fencing) — LINK

NBC Sports Philadelphia
Vashti Cunningham (Track and Field) — LINK
Julie Ertz (Soccer) — LINK

NBC Sports Washington
Katie Ledecky (Swimming) — LINK
Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) — LINK

Romanchuk, 21, swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon titles in 2019. He attributes that success to his native Baltimore and his training residence of the University of Illinois.

At age 2, he was enrolled in Baltimore’s Bennett Blazers, an adaptive sports program for children with physical disabilities. Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who dominated women’s wheelchair marathons, planted her athletic roots there.

“Their motto is to teach kids they can before they’re told they can’t,” Romanchuk said.

Things really blossomed for Romanchuk after he moved from Baltimore to the University of Illinois. Illinois was designated a U.S. Paralympic training site in 2014 and has produced McFadden, Jean Driscoll and other U.S. Paralympic stars.

“Without this program, I certainly would not be where I am,” Romanchuk said. “It’s a very unique combination of coaching and teammates.”

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MORE: Ten Paralympic hopefuls to watch for 2020 Tokyo Games