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There's something rotten in the foul waters of Olympic sailing

2015 September 18

I think I take disappointments fairly well. When I found there was no Santa Claus, I managed to pick up the shattered pieces of my life and move on. Same with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. 

I was going to start this column by shouting, like the crazed newscaster Howard Beale played by Peter Finch in the movie “Network,” that “I’m mad as hell and not going to take this anymore.” But then I had an epiphany. I’m not mad at US Sailing, the U.S. Olympic Committee, the International Sailing Federation, or the International Olympic Committee. I’m just disillusioned. I thought they set a higher standard to protect sailors. I was wrong.

The issue is Guanabera Bay, that stinking Brazilian cesspool which all of the above institutions have chosen as the perfect place to hold the 2016 Sailing Olympics. It is a bay surrounded by the worst slums in the world, which dump some 5,000 gallons of raw sewage every second into its waters. That’s 40,000 gallons straight from ghetto toilets in the time it takes to read this sentence. One of these brown outflows is just 50 feet from where the Olympic sailors launch their boats.

I’ve realized that this decision isn’t about sailors at all. It’s about politics and money and kissing each other’s butts. Sailors be damned.

I ranted like Howard Beale on these pages last October, and the cry was picked up far and wide by journalists and concerned sailors. The result? Nada. Zip. Nothing.

Then the Associated Press was intrigued enough to commission a world-class virologist (that’s a doctor who studies viruses) to sample the waters of Guanabera Bay, and his results are even worse that I’d imagined.

The level of adenoviruses, which are found in human sewage, was 127,000 times the amount that would require the closing of a U.S. beach. One hundred twenty-seven thousand times! 

A respected public health expert put the risk assessment for infection from ingesting just three teaspoons of this water at 99% likelihood. Think about sailing a small boat in a breeze—your intake of water from spray alone, not counting a capsize, is far more than three teaspoons.

At a recent Olympic rowing preview on the same waters, 13 of the 40-person U.S. team (and four coaches) had explosive vomiting and diarrhea. One fourth of the team. They began using bleach on the oar handles after each outing and washing their faces and hands with pure water.

So who’s to blame here? It seems no one. First, the Brazilian Olympic organizers made huge promises years ago to clean up the water when they were awarded the Games by the IOC, and those were all lies. Brazil also lied to get the 2014 Soccer World Cup, which was notable for rusting unfinished stadiums and promised roads that were never started. They now admit Guanabera Bay won’t be clean until 2035, 19 years after the Olympics.

So who protects our sailors? Well, US Sailing says on its website that, “Providing a safe environment to protect the health and wellbeing of athletes is a high priority for the US Sailing.”


US Sailing manages the Olympic US Sailing Team and has its own Sports Medicine Committee, but none have done anything. US Sailing claims to have done its own water testing, but refuses to share the results. It says it has plans to provide “inoculations and antibiotics” to our
Olympic sailors. Like slapping a bandage on cancer.

In other words, a complete fail to “protect their well-being.”

Next up the chain is ISAF, the International Sailing Federation, which is the world governing body for sailing, and which manages sailing at the Olympics. This learned group ruled against conducting any viral tests in spite of overwhelming evidence, saying that tests for bacteria are sufficient. Experts agree that there is little correlation between bacteria levels and viral testing for bugs that will not just make you sick, but kill you. The International Olympic Committee says the matter is “being dealt with.”

Another total fail.

But what about the sailors themselves? Who wants to risk dysentery, cholera or even septic shock which recently killed one California surfer who ventured out in mildly polluted waters after a winter storm.

Well, here’s the problem. Just as US Sailing doesn’t want to upset ISAF, and ISAF doesn’t want to upset the International Olympic Committee, sailors also don’t want to upset their sponsorship applecarts. One world-class Brazilian sailor reported seeing four human corpses on Guanabera Bay, other sailors have lost races because they hit sofas or other trash, and the reports of sickness are rife. But today’s Olympic contenders, who are taking thousands and thousands of sponsorship dollars, wouldn’t say crap if their mouth was full of it. Some sailors even go so far as to say they swim in Guanabera Bay, eat fish from it and see no problems.

So what we have is a confederacy of silence. A carefully orchestrated party line designed to rock no boats. When faced with incontrovertible evidence, every one of these associations that is supposed to protect sailors has chosen to do nothing and, even worse, they have denied the undeniable. They have completely abdicated their responsibilities. 

I’m not saying you should boycott paying your US Sailing dues, because they do some very good things. But acting in the best interests of sailors isn’t one of them. 

It makes me want to puke. A sail in Guanabera Bay would take care of that.