Carling Zeeman, of Canada, competes in the women's single scull heat heat during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Saturday. (Photo: Luca Bruno/AP via Canadian Press)Rio treats only about half of its sewage, dumping the rest into the waters surrounding the metropolitan area of 12 million. Despite promises the water would be clean by the opening of the games, the AP's tests confirmed widespread contamination.
The water looked so pristine that Matt Smith, the executive director of World Rowing — the world governing body other the sport — made a bold claim. "It's nearly drinking water," Smith told reporters. "It's swimming quality. It's really good." Smith, who heads the Switzerland-based body, said the lagoon provided "excellent water quality," which would shock Rio natives who live around the lagoon situated under the soaring Christ the Redeemer statue. They are accustomed to smelling the stench, seeing fish die off, and few swim in a body of water that looks postcard-perfect from a distance but not so good up close.
"I was greeted by a bottle of hand sanitizer."
Zhang Ling, Jiang Yan, Wang Yuwei, and Zhang Xinyue, of China, compete in the women's quadruple scull heat heat during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Saturday. (Photo: Luca Bruno/AP via Canadian Press)Smith is relying on water-quality studies done by the state of Rio de Janeiro, which measure only bacteria levels. The studies have shown bacterial pollution levels regarded as safe by the World Health Organization and the International Olympic Committee. The WHO and the state do not test for viruses, a more expensive and advanced test. Many athletes complained more on Saturday about conditions they could see — in this case high winds and choppy water — and less about viruses and bacteria they couldn't. Still, avoiding the water is an impossible task. "We try to avoid contact with the water as much as possible," Australian rower Kim Brennan said, also detailing a day of white caps and spray on the wide, exposed lagoon. "Obviously, we were pretty much swimming in it today, so we'll find out soon enough what's in there." Brennan, an Olympic bronze and silver
"We try to avoid any hand-to-mouth contact and try to avoid getting any of the water in our mouths," Brennan said. Mahe Drysdale of New Zealand was optimistic and said it was "a lot better than anyone expected it to be." But he said he wasn't a scientist — and still had a plan to combat the water. "We're just making sure we don't put our hands in our mouth after touching the water," he said. "And we make sure that anything we eat and drink has been protected from the water." But even on calm days, rowers get wet from spray and splash. And there are risks when the water gets rough. A Serbian pair in sculls learned that the hard way when they tipped over, breaking the cardinal rule of avoiding contact. They tumbled straight in.
"We try to avoid contact with the water as much as possible."
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