A wiser and more eloquent man than myself once said that no matter how hard life gets, no matter how densely packed with zika-armed mosquitos, human waste/wasted humans, and Hepatitis A-through-Z, the waterways on which athletes will compete in the XXXI Rio Summer Olympiad get, for example, people still tend to prefer dealing with their own issues over even the most mundane problems of the rich and famous. The world is a dirty, dangerous, beautiful place; the grass is always greener, yet humanity insists on living, loving, and finding happiness in even the most toxic and scorched corners of the Earth.
The waterways and sewage lines are horribly polluted by any and all public health standards. Interviews with citizens of favelas or shantytowns like the largest, Rocinha, and talks with public officials and fishermen alike, both concerned with issues of infrastructure (i.e., plumbing) and water quality, show the water pollution problem that has the international athletic community concerned for their health and the general public wary of humanitarian insensitivity and skeptical how rigorously Summer Game-host cities are vetted, is more nuanced and complicated than one might think.
Since the ancient tradition was rekindled in Athens 1896, there has not been a single Olympiad that did not open to public uproar or was not host to some sort of scandal. From doping (e.g., Beijing, 2008) to terrorist kidnappings (Munich, 1972) to the disease-and-sewage laden water that has, alongside several other glaring issues that are all interconnected, plagued the XXXI Summer Games in Rio this year, nothing ever seems to go right. Protests against the idea of Rio de Janeiro hosting the Olympics started as soon as the bid was made official because Brazilian citizens knew what the Committee and the developed world glazed over with rosy hues the rampant political corruption, economic mismanagement, faltering infrastructure, crime, pollution, and abject poverty teeming in favelas.
All of these issues are tied to the most pressing concern of all, that most of the water outside of facilities maintained by pool boys on Copacabana Beach has, by some standards, alarming levels of feces and other toxic waste. Here are 15 facts about the water pollution issue in Rio and surrounding areas that you most likely do not have the time to scour the Internet to find out about.
15. If It Looks Like ‘It And Smells Like ‘It…
In July of last year (2015), an Alternative Press independent study found that, “Olympic athletes are almost certain to come into contact with disease-causing viruses that in some tests measured up to 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.” Therefore it should be little to no surprise that already in training, several athletes fell ill before the opening ceremonies. What is slightly more surprising is that athletes have complained the beach water literally smells like sewage. Meanwhile, back when Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro was chosen to host this year’s games, in 2009, there were supposed plans to have the triathlete beach of Copacabana and others pollution free by 2014, two years ago. You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and mayor.
14. Potemkin Water Treatment Plant
The Potemkin city was an actual plywood facade of a city built to fool Empress Catherine the Great of Russia into thinking her empire extended way out into the useless boonies of central Asia and Eurasia. Where the Tsar could not get anybody to actually move out there and settle the land, unhealthy soil and unfriendly environs do not seem to be a deterrent to humans crammed into the overcrowded and sewage inundated hovels of Brazil. Least shocking, despite efforts, sincere efforts, within their means: Brazil never could afford to bring things up to speed; they promised to build five to eight (by varying estimates, cited below) water treatment plants and have built only one, which is not necessarily operational or hooked into the existing infrastructure. As far back as the 90s, Brazilian politicians procured Japanese funding to build several treatment plants and it is an as of yet unsolved mystery where most of these funds went.
13. Brazil’s President To Be Tried For Financial ‘Crimes’
Proceedings to try and impeach Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, for breaking budgetary law have been put on hold until the closing ceremony on the 21st of this month. Ironic that a South American country, none of which have avoided financial crashes and all of which have experienced the worst free-and fixed-market economies have to offer, is being so strict in their application of financial regulations. ‘How does this relate to water pollution’, you ask? Given that only one of several promised waste management plants was completed and is non-operational, chances are good that a move was made to get startup capital for several large municipal projects that not surprisingly to the government fizzled out once the project became, “more expensive than expected.”
12. Relocation To Less-Polluted Lands Has Happened Before
According to Olympic Committee rules and regulations, single events can be relocated to countries outside of the host country if the host country cannot provide athletes with regulation equipment and facilities, for instance if the playing field for boating events is littered with potentially virulent and toxic waste rendering it a killing field instead. It has happened before, the equestrian events of Melbourne, Australia’s 1956 Summer Games were moved to Stockholm, Sweden, because certain quarantining laws concerned with the import of livestock prevented the riders’ most important pieces of equipment, their horses from getting into the country. The 1956 horse-riding events were even held a week before the Melbourne games, as opposed to Rio’s sailing, triathlon, and marathon swimming events, which will be kept in the same location by order of the World Health Organization.
11. Favela: A South American Tale
Dated and weak movie reference aside, favelas are at the heart of this water pollution story. Taking a look at this photo, it is easy to see how any state maintained infrastructure might not reach into the deepest hearts of these shantytowns. Add in the fact that the heart of the favela is also a hub of criminal activity and lack of physical access, and you end up with a leaky makeshift sewage system thrown together with PVC-pipe and hooked illegally (and therefore without any health or safety regulation) into the state run plumbing lines. This also means that those facade waste management plants are definitely not hooked up to many favela systems; the most recent estimate: 3.6 million people across 100 Brazilian cities do not have sewage hookups.
10. Sailing The High (Hepatitis) C’s
Athletes practicing for boating and sailing events off of the coast of Guanabara Bay have been complaining more about the flotsam and jetsam, mostly plastic bags. They have to navigate on top of navigating the unfamiliar watery terrain than the more microscopic terrors of the sea. This would not be the first time an Olympian complained about the pollution hindering his or her performance. In Beijing, 2008, in fact, a much wider range of athletes were affected by suffocating air quality; the majority of terrestrial athletes should actually be quite grateful then in 2016 to have chosen the sport they did. No wonder most of the record-breaking action happened in the enclosed, temperature-and atmosphere-controlled swimming event arenas.
9. Everything Is Relative
California beaches are the reference for bad pollution; San Diego and Long Beach and Huntington are where quite a few people train, and though the indoor swimmers and divers are slightly less in danger than the boaters, and tri-and dec-athletes, these practices in LA-river tainted water, and similarly, in the training “grounds” in Guanabara Bay, are risky. Perhaps this is why American athletes have not been the loudest dissenters. Everything including pollution and risk is relative and problems also seem to disappear from our list of collective concerns as easily as the athletes clear out of Olympic Village after the closing ceremonies. In Sochi, athletes complained about just as heartily about the lack of up-to-par hotel rooms as lack of LGBT rights, while Beijing’s toxic air quality held equal footing with technical difficulties during the opening ceremony.
8. ‘Ecoboats’, Valiant Attempt Or Empty Gesture?
With that Alternative Press estimate that 2016 Olympians have 99% chance of getting sick from ingesting only three teaspoons of Rio water, the hosting nation had to do something besides build inactive water filtration plants and blame the poor. Brazil’s solution comes in the form of repurposed fishing boats whose owners have been commissioned to cast their nets at garbage rather than fish. Too bad it is mostly fecal matter and microscopic stuff that presents the biggest danger to athlete and civilian alike. Still, this is one of the few gestures that is more than just that, even if the Ecoboat (captains) will take off their sandwich board signs and turn back into fishing boats or pumpkins at the stroke of midnight after the closing ceremonies on the 21st.
7. Athletes Often Choose Victory Over Safety
Athletes value victory over safety, most are concerned that the event might be moved to grounds they did not train on, not that they will be competing in crap conditions and risking severe illness. According to long-distance open-water swimmer Lynne Cox, in a statement given to the New York Times, “The only time I failed was when I became gravely ill during a race in the Nile River. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was already sick with dysentery from training in the polluted water. Swimming through sewage, rotting rats and dead dogs, I struggled to finish the race. I didn’t want to stop… In the emergency room I was told I was extremely dehydrated and that I could have died.”
6. The Olympic Committee Looked The Other Way
Plain and simple, nobody in their right minds (and involved in the decision to have Rio host the 2016 Summer Olympiad and who had not been raised under a rock) truly believed the economic boom and relative political stability they saw in 2009 would last the roughly seven years the world and Brazil waited until the opening ceremonies. Brazil is by no means in an economic upturn, and with its first female president shouting accusations of coup at the prospect of her impeachment for which she will be on trial as soon as the tourists clear out. Brazil needed money, yes, but it did not and does not have the infrastructure capable of hosting the hands this money must pass through; they end up paying the price for posturing as a nation no longer in the red.
5. Zika Mosquitos Are Afraid Of Heights…
…is one way to say that the mosquitos currently spreading the zika virus thrive at lower altitudes, like at the coasts, where Rio and the Olympic Village where for now every athletic competition of the XXXI Summer Games will be hosted. Of course, the little bloodsuckers that spread this new strain of death do have wings, so your best bet if you are braving the wilds of urban Brazil, is still good old-fashioned bug repellant. It is just ominous but fascinating that the more affluent of Rio who live and work at lower elevations, and who distracted the Olympic Committee from their high-altitude hovels or favelas, only to possibly be consumed by low-dwelling insects with biological weapons.
4. Tourism: Good For Whose Business?
Though Police Commander, Major Pricilla Azevado, says she and her 670 fellow officers have seen a marked decrease in the gang violence in recent year, singular, not in recent years–suspicious that this decrement in violent crime coincided with plans for 5 to 8 waste management facilities and the bid to host the 31st modern-day Summer Olympic Games. Even if gang aversion to police presence is down, the state did take genuine steps to raid crime-ridden areas around Brazil’s Rio-Galeão Airport, but in doing so, signaled to the criminal element that tourism and gentrification may bring money in to the rich parts of Rio, but will make it harder for black market operations to be run under the radar.
3. (Unsafe) S*x, Drugs, Rocks & ‘The Dole’
It is no news that illicit substance use, unsafe health practices, and being on welfare or ‘the dole’ as the Brits call it, go hand in hand. What is shocking about this point is how rampant and out-of-control the criminal element’s hold on pollution-generating favelas has become, at least from the perspective of Fernandes de Oliveira, operations director for the CEDAE, the state’s Water And Waste Management agency. He is paraphrased in The Atlantic saying, “With all the drug trafficking, sometimes it’s too dangerous for municipal workers to enter [favelas].” So a cycle is born whereby dealers and users live in a parasitic relationship at the heart of the tangled hovels; with paraphernalia and infectious diseases leaking from pipes into runoff and to the coast.
2. Sabotage! At Olympic Village
Those charged with actually designing and constructing the 31st Olympic Village in Rio claimed, in response to complaints from several national teams and the Aussies outright boycotting the Village and finding alternate accommodations, that their efforts had been sabotaged by protesters. One of the many things wrong with the Village apartments is, you guessed it, bad plumbing: leaky pipes, clogged toilets, and the cherry on top of this urinal cake, some of the toilets had no bowls, meaning there were holes in the ground where toilet bowls should have been. The problems may have all but been worked out at Olympic Village, but with everything being a point of political leverage or an affront to the poor, it is equally likely the apartments were sabotaged by protesters as Brazil’s standards are below the unrealistic international community’s.
1. American Slavery, A Polluted History
Brazil was the last of the American nations to outlaw slavery; the last country in the Western world to ban the commodification and indentured servitude of African people. Even before this South American state was colonized by the Portuguese, the indigenous Brazilians imported and sold African-American labor. This relates to the water pollution issue in that the favelas that feature so heavily in causing this pollution, are largely populated by the impoverished descendants of these eventually-freed slaves. Furthermore, poor folk generally were forced to move up into the hills where mudslides occurred. The ground at Rocinha is solid now, so the liquids that bubble up through makeshift plumbing and the mosquito larvae growing in standing water (tanks), all flow downhill to Olympic Village and leave the shacks intact.