A 35-person team of Australian sailors, coaches and support crew begin competing in test events this week for next year's Summer Olympics on pollution-plagued Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, concerned as much about the floating debris that could affect the results of racing as the "horrible" sewage-filled water.
Peter Conde, performance director of Australian Sailing, will be the Australian Olympic Committee's team leader for sailing next year in Rio. He and about 15 sailors, plus coaches and support staff have been in Brazil for two weeks preparing for the test events.
Conde told the Associated Press in a telephone interview that three members of the delegation — a competitor, coach and support person — had become ill in the lead-up to the racing, all with 24-hour stomach upsets.
"We've taken precautionary measures over the level of hygiene and medication we take to avoid the stomach ills that are prevalent here," Conde said. "We've been pretty successful in avoiding anything major so far, but of course we try to stay away from and out of the polluted water."
An independent analysis by the AP of water quality released two weeks ago showed high levels of viruses and, in some cases, bacteria from human sewage in Rio's Olympic and Paralympic water venues.
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This includes the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where rowing and canoeing will take place, the Guanabara Bay where the sailing competition are to be staged, and at Copacabana Beach where distance-swimming and triathlon events will take place.
International Olympic Committee vice president John Coates, an Australian, has said he thinks the water quality will be more of a concern for the sailors than rowers or other athletes, and Conde agrees.
"I think the pollution in the (rowing) lake is quite bad, but rowers don't get in the water very much, it's rare for them to capsize their boat," Conde said.
"It's horrible on the bay as well, but probably what worries us more is the debris in the bay that can lead to unfair racing. You pick up a plastic bag and it can kill a race for the competitors. It can hit their rudders and they can capsize. So we're as much concerned about the debris as we are about the pollution."
Conde said the support team in particular is careful handling towlines and ropes that are often in the water, and use simple precautions such as liberal application of hand sanitizers to ensure they don't become ill.
"That's a pretty simple thing, and we realized last year that some of the people that were getting sick were coaches," Conde said." They were in the area near the docks at Marina de Gloria where untreated sewage was coming out. We were moored right next to a sewage outfall, it was absolutely putrid. They are apparently planning to divert that sewage to a treatment plant before the games next year."
Asked if the precautions taken for Rio are more stringent than the 2012 Games, Conde said: "Yes, oh yes. It was a complete non-issue for us in London."
"But having said that, it was an issue in Beijing, not so much during the games but in the lead-up," Conde said of the sailing venue in Qingdao on the Yellow Sea, about 700 kilometers (430 miles) from Beijing.
In Qingdao, high temperatures, humidity, fog and storms as well as an outbreak of blue-green algae just before the 2008 Games played havoc with team preparations.
This week, the IOC ruled out conducting viral tests of Rio's waterways ahead of the Olympics, despite the AP study showing dangerously high levels of disease-causing viruses at all aquatic venues.
Olympic Games executive director Christophe Dubi said this week the IOC will be sticking to World Health Organization guidelines recommending only bacterial testing.
"It is out of control, there's not a lot of point in doing our own testing, that's up to the IOC and International Sailing Federation," Conde said. "It's not our level of expertise. We just hope that given the protocols we have in place, we'll be OK."
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