They’ve been told not to put their heads underwater, some are donning anti-microbial suits, and others are publicly fed up of being reminded of Brazil’s contaminated waterways. Are Olympic athletes competing in water sports really at grave risk of disease from Rio de Janeiro’s open waters?
While concern on the ground swirls around mosquitoes and Zika virus, the controversy over water quality has taken hold for athletes involved in water sports at the Summer Games.
“Like any polluted waters, the concern is infectious disease, bacteria, and viruses, leading to gastrointestinal disorders, skin problems, respiratory troubles or eye infections. It’s the whole gamut really,” Jason Tetro, a Canadian microbiologist and author of The Germ Files, told Global News.
“We’ve heard from several authorities that the water is ‘not safe’ and what that means is people in close contact need to do what they can to avoid ingesting water,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a tropical infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital and the University of Toronto, said.
Gastrointestinal issues could mean stomach aches and diarrhea, eye problems would be conjunctivitis or pink eye, and respiratory problems could stem from bacteria that’s capable of thriving in the lungs (in rare cases).
“I don’t want to downplay it because these are world class athletes competing on a world stage and need to be at the top of their game to perform well so they want every possible advantage, but the vast majority of these potential illnesses are going to be mild,” Bogoch said.
They may not even manifest during the games, Tetro warned too. If athletes swallow too much water that could be contaminated, symptoms, like stomach cramps or diarrhea wouldn’t turn up until at least a day later.
WATCH ABOVE: Team Canada chief medical officer Bob McCormack told reporters in Rio Wednesday that the recent concerns in the media about the quality of the water for certain swimming events in the upcoming Summer Games have been overblown.
And they want to remind the public: murky waters aren’t exclusive to Rio de Janeiro and this year’s Olympics. Across North America, people aren’t encouraged to swallow water, and beaches and lakes are closed because they’re unsafe to swim in, too.
“This highlights a global issue of high levels of contamination, especially around urban areas,” Bogoch said.
“You’re always going to have some infections at every Olympics, the question is what is the proportion — is it a select few or are you going to have a widespread mini-outbreak? If the water is unclean or unsafe, there is a likelihood a lot of people could come down with something,” Tetro said.
The concern from athletes is mixed.
Adam van Koeverden, an Olympic gold, silver and bronze medallist, kayaking for Team Canada this year, told Global News the hype around Rio’s health safety has taken away from the Games and the hard work the athletes have poured into preparation.
Instead of being asked about his training or what he’s expecting from this year’s competition, van Koeverden said he and his fellow athletes are being bombarded with questions about whether they’re worried about the water, Zika or Rio’s alleged haphazard conditions.
“There’s hype that goes into these horror stories. I race on dirty water, I train on dirty water, and no one cared until we were in Rio,” he told Global News. He just wrapped up training on the Danube River in Hungary, for example.
It’s one of Europe’s most overfished and overpolluted waterways, according to some accounts. At Rio, van Koeverden plans to wear sunglasses and a visor to protect his eyes and face, and he’ll be mindful if water splashes into his mouth.
“It is time to shut up about the water quality. We’re going, we’re going to race, and we’d rather talk about how we’ve trained to represent our country,” van Koeverden told Global News.
“I’m willing to paddle through s*** for my country,” he said.
Kalmoe said the poor water quality has been sensationalized and being persistently asked about it is taking away from athletes’ efforts leading up to a world event that only happens once every four years.
“[This is not] helping anyone to be faster or perform better in Rio, so why would you do it? It seems a little mean-spirited and like you don’t care if we do well. Or that you somehow think we should not enjoy our trip to the Olympics,” she said.
“I will row through s*** for you, America,” she also said.
WATCH ABOVE: Recent tests done on Rio’s water has found that it has more than a million times the amount of pollutants compared to Canadian standards. Jeff Semple reports on what athletes are doing to avoid getting sick.
Yet the vitriol continues. The Associated Press conducted a 16-month study and learned that Rio’s Olympic and Paralympic venues have “consistent and dangerously high levels” of viruses from pollution.
In March 2015, an “astounding” 1.73 billion adenoviruses per litre were uncovered in Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where rowing will take place. By June, there were 248 million adenoviruses per litre.
In other accounts, Australia’s leading swim coach said the training pool in Barra da Tijuca was “cloudy” and “soupy” just days before the start of the swimming program.
The U.S. swim team is bracing for the conditions by covering up in seamless, anti-microbial suits while the New York Times said sailors called the Olympics training ground “putrid” with floating debris and tainted water.
Canadian sailor, Luke Ramsay, had a bad cut that became infected during training. He went on antibiotics for two weeks until the cut healed.
“At the end of the day, it’s about winning a medal, not staying healthy,” Ramsay told the Times.