RIO DE JANEIRO – The head of sailing’s governing body threatened Saturday to move all Olympic sailing events out of polluted Guanabara Bay unless the water is cleaner and floating rubbish is removed for next year’s Rio Games.
“If we can’t get the water to a level, then we’ll move it outside (to the Atlantic Ocean) – for sure,” Peter Sowrey told The Associated Press on the final day of an Olympic test event.
Such a move would be an embarrassment to local organizers and the International Olympic Committee. They have said repeatedly the water is safe despite being filled with floating rubbish and untreated sewage that gushes down gullies from hillside favelas.
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Sowrey, the chief executive officer of ISAF, said one course for the test event inside the bay was closed after floating rubbish hindered racing for two days. Rubbish flowed into the bay despite little rain in Rio in recent weeks, probably the best weather officials could want.
He also complained he received no data during the week-long Olympic test from the state body that monitors water quality. A check of the website for Inea – the state institute – showed it had reported water quality on the bay only once in the last 10 days.
“We are not happy as a federation from the reporting on the water,” Sowrey said. “We’re not getting the reporting we expected to get.”
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Rio’s pollution has been in the spotlight since an independent five-month analysis by the AP published July 30 showed dangerously high levels of viruses from human sewage at all Rio Olympic water venues for sailing, rowing, canoeing, triathlon and distance swimming.
The IOC has declined to endorse testing for viruses, which can cause stomach and respiratory ailments that could knock an athlete out of competition.
Sowrey said the closely watched sailing test event had gone “pretty well” from an operational viewpoint. But he said there was still too much raw sewage being pumped into the bay, and too much floating debris that makes fair racing impossible.
“If we can’t get it clean, we’ve got to do something,” he said.
ISAF has three courses in the bay and the three in the open Atlantic. Malcolm Page, a two-time Olympic gold-medal sailor and a spokesman for ISAF, backed up Sowrey.
“Yes, you could sail all the competitions outside,” he said.
Moving sailing out of Guanabara would be a blow to ISAF, which hopes to use the backdrop of Sugarloaf Mountain to draw fans to the sport. Television rights holders also love the postcard images, which look perfect from a distance.
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Paul Henderson, the former president of ISAF and a former IOC member, said the event should be moved.
“ISAF should demand it be moved because Rio 2016 did not live up to their obligations,” Henderson said in an email to AP.
Sailors at the week-long event wandered around the Marina da Gloria taking photos and videos of raw sewage still pouring into the water just a few steps from where they launch their boats. Raw sewage is also still flowing into Flamengo Beach, which will be used as a sailing viewing area for the Olympics, which open Aug. 5.
“We need much more improvement in cleaning up when it rains,” Sowrey said. “And certainly closing down all the sewage outlets.”
Sowrey, like the IOC, has declined to endorse viral testing, largely because the World Health Organization has not set a standard for viruses. But he said the high levels concerned him.
“Obviously I don’t sleep well,” he said. “I worry about it a lot. We’re all worried about it.”
He said he hoped to return to Rio before the end of the year, and he said it was unclear how soon ISAF would decide if it will move from the bay.
He said he also fears the water issue could distract from next year’s Olympic sailing, turning the event into a debate forum on sanitation and pollution.
“We’re worried,” he said. “If the whole thing is around the quality of the water, then it’s a failure for me.”
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