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

Guanabara Bay
AP
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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

Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

Alpine Skiing Combined
Getty
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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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Ironman Kona World Championships return, live on Peacock

Ironman Kona World Championship
Ironman
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The Ironman Kona World Championships return after a three-year hiatus with a new format, live on Peacock on Thursday and Saturday at 12 p.m. ET.

The Ironman, held annually in Hawaii since 1978, and in Kailua-Kona since 1981, was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The world championships made a one-time-only stop in St. George, Utah, on May 7 to make up for the 2021 cancellation. The winners were Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt, the Tokyo Olympic triathlon champion, and Swiss Daniela Ryf, who bagged her fifth Ironman world title.

WATCH LIVE: Ironman Kona men’s pro race, Saturday, 12 p.m. ET — STREAM LINK

Both entered Kailua-Kona, where the races were now split between two days — Thursday for the women and Saturday for the men. Chelsea Sodaro won the women’s race, ending a 20-year American victory drought.

An Ironman includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a marathon — totaling 140.6 miles of racing. It takes top triathletes eight hours to complete. Very arguably, it crowns the world’s fittest man and woman.

Blummenfelt, 28 and in his Kona debut, will try to become the youngest male champion in Kona since German Normann Stadler in 2005. His top challengers include countryman Gustav Iden, the two-time reigning Half Ironman world champion, and German Patrick Lange, the 2017 and 2018 Ironman Kona winner.

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