Rio's Polluted Waters

Now that Olympic indoor swimming has ended, we can all turn our gazes from the chlorinated safety of the 50-meter pool -- and the emerald-green disturbance found in the neighboring Olympic diving waters -- and focus our attentions on a different athletic venue with plenty of its own drama and intrigue: The natural waters off Rio's beautiful shore.

In the months before these Olympic Games began, endless bad publicity befell organizers for their poor management of the open waters slated to host a variety of competitions, including rowing, sailing and open-water swimming. Tests showed water pollution so bad, it almost qualified as sewage -- and that's probably because roughly half of the raw sewage produced by Rio residents gets dumped directly into the water, instead of being processed.

Experts compounded the sense of doom by insisting there was no way to elevate the waters to levels of pollution that were safe for swimming and other events. The obvious conclusion: Rio's waters were a time bomb.

Olympic Sailing

The good news is that things haven't been the all-out nightmare some had predicted for this year's events taking place in open waters. So far, we've avoided a plague of swimmers falling ill or sailboats crashing into floating furniture (not a joke; that was a legitimate concern).

Rio organizers did themselves a favor by moving events like the 10,000-meter swim down near Copacabana Beach, which is closer to the Atlantic Ocean waters and a safer distance from the heavily polluted waters found farther into Guanabara Bay. Some pollution does make its way down to Copacabana, but its presence is far more diluted than what you would expect, if you've been paying attention to the horror stories.

Don't misunderstand: There are legitimate horror stories to be told about the waters surrounding Rio, Brazil. They found a severed human leg close to the Olympic sailing courses, for crying out loud.

But barring a heavy rainstorm that forces sewage-contaminated water downstream and into the area of Copacabana Beach, we probably won't get the apocalyptic poop-water catastrophe many have been waiting for.

Olympic Swimming

So that's the good news. The bad news is that there's still a good chunk of bad news, and Olympic athletes are eager to express their frustrations at organizers for the mess they've put them in (pun intended). At the top of the list of PR blemishes: One Olympic sailor has come down with such a severe illness that it may have cost her a medal at the Games.

Evi Van Acker was considered a favorite to win a medal, but after a practice run in Rio's waters, she came down with a severe intestinal infection. Her doctors blame the polluted water. The infection was so bad that in the days leading up to the sailing competition, Van Acker was so weak it seemed uncertain if she could compete.

Though still sick and exhausted, she did manage to enter the competition Tuesday. She finished fourth, just missing the podium.

Olympic organizers have dismissed Van Acker's illness as an isolated event. And yes, she's the only athlete who has come down ill and attributed it to Rio's waters. But she's far from the only athlete criticizing Rio's state of affairs. One Brazilian sailboarder criticized his own country for a weak effort in cleaning up Rio's bay, saying that the lack of garbage interfering with their competition was the product of luck more than genuine efforts to clean up the area.

"Very little was done in relation to the cleaning up of Guanabara Bay," Ricardo Santos said, according to Reuters. "These clean waters we've seen in recent days aren't real. Unfortunately, in a week it will all be polluted again."

There's also an issue of transparency, one that is consistent throughout many aspects of Rio's Olympic operations. While the state's environmental agency says it is testing Olympic waters every day, and that the results are coming back fine, they also aren't making those test results available to reporters. That continues a trend of organizers brushing aside concerns about mismanagement, and asking everyone to trust them.

But blind faith may be a hazard to your health, especially if you plan on going for a swim. Then again, maybe we're all overreacting: One Olympic sailor told Reuters -- he's sick and tired of talk about pollution.

"I've sailed in worse conditions and think the water pollution situation is exaggerated," said Andrew Lewis of Trinidad & Tobago. "This is my fifth time back to Rio, and I've never gotten sick and never got any infection. It's time for all this complaining to stop."

So take both sides with a grain of salt. And enter the waters at your own risk.

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