There’s something in the water at the Rio Olympics. In fact, there are a lot of things — condoms, cans, shoes, diapers, plastic bags, rotaviruses, superbacteria, raw sewage and the occasional corpse.
Best not to touch, smell or swallow. If you’re an Olympic sailor, best not to capsize. If you’re an Olympic open-water swimmer, best to have a cast-iron stomach.
Guanabara Bay is spectacularly challenging and notoriously polluted. Sailors have a love-hate relationship with the venue of powerful currents, shifting breezes and hazardous levels of e coli. One lousy piece of debris that catches on a centerboard or wraps around a rudder can ruin a race.
But a brave and selfless man — Fort Lauderdale’s Brad Funk — made it his mission to clean up the contaminated bay on behalf of his fellow sailors. It was a Sisyphean task — akin to one gardener irrigating the Sahara desert — but Funk tried. Wearing two pairs of gloves, wielding nets and baskets, Funk scooped nearly 800 pounds of junk out of the bay where his friends will compete starting Monday.
“No Olympic medal should be won or lost because of trash in the water,” he said. “Rio is my favorite place in the world to sail and it would be a shame if the regatta was compromised by pollution.”
Funk made his garbage-collecting forays on a boat named Ulysses. He did not encounter Cyclops or Circe. But he did have to navigate through a fetid stew of dead fish, floating furniture and submerged TVs.
Funk, an elite sailor who has narrowly missed making the U.S. Olympic team in three attempts, came to Rio to support his girlfriend, gold-medal favorite Bryony Shaw, a windsurfer from Great Britain. He’s familiar with the conditions. Unable to race, he decided to devote his energy and ingenuity to doing what Rio Olympic organizers promised when they bid for the Games. The government was supposed to finally solve the sanitation shortcomings that foul its famous beaches and picturesque bay by spending $4 billion to build and upgrade sewage treatment plants in this metropolis of 10 million. But a budget crisis intervened. Raw human waste from favelas and hospitals continues to flow into Rio’s waterways. When it rains it’s more like a flood.
Berms and “eco-boats” that are like aquatic bulldozers have been deployed in time for the Olympics and have collected hundreds of tons of rubbish.
Funk did what he could, one diaper at a time. He spent a couple thousand dollars of his own money to hire Niteroi fishing boat captain Julio do Outeiral Filho. He made several trips, filling Filho’s hold with bulging black garbage bags instead of fish. Joined by volunteer Camila Barroso Avelar, they spent hours plucking and hauling stuff out of the water.
“If I helped one person, I’ll be happy that I was useful to the Olympics,” he said. “This is our playground. We all live on a water planet. We’ve got to pitch in and save the environment before it’s too late.”
German 49er partners Victoria Jurczok and Annika Lorenz almost collided with a dead dog when training here in June. They were alarmed to see a dead baby but found it was just a doll. Like many other sailors who have contracted diarrhea, ear infections, conjunctivitis, skin rashes and various gastrointestinal ailments when training here, they have fallen ill, too.
“We have never sailed in a place so dirty and smelly — the water is never blue, always brown,” Jurczok said at Gloria Marina, where trash had accumulated by the boat ramp. “Chairs and pieces of wood. And so many flip flops floating all over the place — I wonder where are the owners of them.”
Their teammate Eric Heil had a cut on his leg that got infected with flesh-eating bacteria during a test event here. He had to be hospitalized.
“I saw the yellow stuff inside the wound, but he’s all better and not afraid,” Jurczok said. “We don’t have to drink or bathe in the water. We just have to spit it out constantly.”
Other sailors, including the Americans, are not worried.
“It’s just as bad in Barcelona,” Spain’s Iago Lopez said. “But we enjoy the venue because it rewards the most skilled sailors. No race is over until the finish line.”
Great Britain’s Alain Sign and Dylan Fletcher said they are meticulous about cleaning their wetsuits and water bottles.
“The sailing is wicked fun,” Fletcher said.
Ricardo Lobato, technical director of Brazil’s sailing team, grew up sailing and swimming in Guanabara Bay, as did Martine and Marco Grael of Niteroi, members of the first family of Brazilian sailing. They said the bay used to be clear but has deteriorated.
“The biggest problem used to be oil spills and slicks from the freighters,” Lobato said. “Trash washed into the bay from a landfill but they closed it. Of course we have issues but they have been exaggerated. They talk about one type of bacteria that cannot even survive in saltwater. And anyway, I’m here all my life and I’m still alive.”
University of Miami sports medicine specialist Dr. Clifton Page, medical director for U.S. Sailing, said team members have updated immunizations and can take rifuximin to decrease symptoms if they ingest organisms. Some are gargling with mouthwash and taking probiotic supplements.
“Our main concern is e coli because in some areas they have found contamination levels 10 times higher than what we’d consider safe in the U.S.,” he said. “There’s also a risk of salmonella, giardia and cryptosporidium. You don’t want to get parasites.
“But overall, it’s minimal risk.”
The Associated Press found disease-causing viral levels 1.7 million times higher than normal in certain sections of the bay, but Olympic officials said the race course areas are safe.
Funk, who wants to help locals organize volunteer cleanup brigades to continue what he started, did not get sick despite his close contact with the water and its pathogens.
“I’d give anything to sail in the Olympics,” he said. “I hope people will see how beautiful this bay can be.”