The news from Rio is likely to surprise no one in the world of international sports: The water around the city that’s hosting the 2016 Summer Olympic Games is worse than we thought.
Sailors, rowers, canoeists and open-water swimmers, beware. Only a few of you will win medals, but it’s possible that by simply competing you will leave Brazil having been exposed to viruses and bacteria. Congratulations and have a nice time.
The Associated Press is reporting that tests it commissioned of the Rio Olympic waters found they are more widely contaminated by sewage than previously known. A person exposed to this water could develop a host of debilitating flu-like symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea and fever.
As unacceptable as this situation is, it’s not new, and we might as well get used to it. This is what happens when the Olympic world turns to a developing nation to host the Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee had never before chosen a South American city to host an Olympics before picking Rio in 2009.
Rio’s sales pitch was simple: it showed a map of the world, highlighting all the locations of previous Olympics. South America was blank. That’s a powerful message, and a winning one.
The water in Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo – Rio’s 2016 competitors – would not have been a problem. But the IOC didn’t care about that. It wanted to make a statement, to bring the Games to a new continent. It made sense then. It still makes sense.
But giving the world’s biggest peacetime gathering to a city still struggling to serve its citizens obviously stretches that city’s resources to within an inch of its life. That’s the deal with the devil that the IOC makes so often and so freely. The IOC is all about picking cities that inherently have trouble hosting the Games: just in the past dozen years, there was Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and now Rio.
This is not news to the athletes who train for so long in the hope of someday making it to an Olympics. Most athletes who touch the terribly polluted water in and around Rio will take precautions. They’ll put on special clothing or suits. They’ll take medicine. They’ll do whatever they need to do to try to not get sick.
And they certainly will compete. If the IOC and each sport’s international federation allow events to go on as scheduled – as they likely will – every sailor, rower, canoeist and open-water swimmer who qualifies for the Olympic Games will show up, no matter how bad the conditions are. That’s what Olympic athletes do.
This doesn’t mean we should let Rio and the IOC off the hook. The city won the right to host the Olympics at least in part due to a pledge to clean up its waterways by improving sanitation. Rio took this one right out of the Olympic promises playbook. Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Olympics by saying it would work to clean up its air pollution and do a better job on human rights. (It barely could have been doing a worse job on human rights.)
Then it reneged on both items. The air quality was by far the worst I’ve experienced covering 16 consecutive Olympic Games, winter and summer.
And, on the topic of caring about human rights, Beijing did just the opposite, putting dissidents in jail because the Olympics were coming. Did the IOC or its corporate sponsors punish Beijing in any way for this blatant flouting of the sporting world’s trust? Of course not.
In fact, they recently gave Beijing another incredible gift: the 2022 Winter Games.
The takeaway from the Beijing fiasco is that there will be no consequences for an Olympic city that doesn’t do what it says it will do. So the criticism of contaminated water will continue, as it should, and Rio officials will talk a good game, but they already know they don’t have anything to worry about.