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 pollution has set up a quandary for the athletes. Competitors in a water sport must essentially avoid the water. Some have been training off and on for months in Rio, hoping to build up immunity. Others decided to come in quickly and take their chances. Canadian rower Carling Zeeman rushed to the dock to prepare for her heat, and instead of racing strategy from her coach, she got something else. "I was greeted by a bottle of hand sanitizer," she said. Officials did their best to put a positive front on the problem. The water, while polluted, does often look clean. Drier winter weather in Rio recently has also helped because there has been no torrential rain to flush human waste from the hillside slums that surround the city into the lagoon.
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)
"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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