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Swim in the Chicago River? Olympians Will This Summer

Olympic athletes will swim in the Chicago River?

Well, no. Not exactly. But, athletes at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next summer likely will be competing in water equally – or even more – dirty than the Chicago River.

The waters surrounding Rio in which the athletes will be rowing, sailing, and swimming during the Games have suffered industrial and sewage pollution for decades, similar to the Chicago River.

This was not the plan. In 2009, Rio promised as part of its Olympic host bid that it would clean up this environmental mess before the 2016 Games began. Rio and Brazil promised to clean up its bays and streams by constructing $4 billion of basic sanitation services, including eight sewage treatment facilities for Guanabara Bay and nearby waters.

The mess is not small. Raw sewage runs freely in streets and open ditches in the city of 12 million people and into the adjacent bays and lakes. To date, Rio has constructed only one treatment facility. The city’s governor recently acknowledged that “there's not going to be time” to clean up the water before the Games, according to the Associated Press (AP).

The reasons for the gap between the promises made by Rio in 2009 and the breach of those promises in 2015 are the same that initially led to the environmental problems. Rio and Brazil suffer from major bureaucratic inefficiency, as well as mismanagement, scandal, and corruption. The results are evident in the contamination and pollution around the city.

As a local point of reference, the Chicago River’s history is similar to Rio’s water. Chicago rapidly developed as a major industrial hub, and the city took the easiest and cheapest route by dumping its waste in the river. When typhoid fever became epidemic, Chicago’s solution was simply to reverse the river’s flow away from its drinking water source. The Chicago River’s quality is now better but remains far from the “recreational frontier” that the Mayor touts. Fecal coliform bacteria – a cause of illness – exists in the river in amounts 13 to 25 times higher than permitted levels and can jump to 3,000 times higher after rain.

If Chicago’s situation is bad, Rio’s situation is much, much worse. Rio's sewage crisis similarly increased dramatically as the city’s population rapidly grew. Rio, however, has many additional challenges. Over 20% of the city’s residents live in slums, and more than half of the area’s households are not connected to sewers. This situation and the city’s sewer system have been called “medieval” by one expert.

The impact that these environmental conditions will have on the upcoming Games remains a significant question. Experts predict severe consequences for the athletes. A recent AP investigation found that Rio’s lakes and bays in which the athletes will compete contain viruses in the range of 14 million to 1.7 billion parts per liter. By comparison, the limit on California beaches is closer to 1,000 parts per liter. One estimate has the risk of infection to the Olympic athletes at 99 percent. Some athletes are planning to arrive in Rio early, become exposed to the dirty water, and then hopefully fully recover from any illness before the Games begin.

In selecting Rio in 2009 as the host city for the 2016 Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was excited to have the Games held on a new continent. Part of the excitement was an expansion of the Olympic movement, but another significant reason was the growth of revenue. The IOC has seen an increase in television revenue by this expansion into South America, just as it did when expanding into China in 2008. The selection of Asian cities for the 2018-2022 Games is seen as a continuation of this business plan.

This desire to grow IOC revenue, however, should not be achieved to the detriment of the Games. The IOC currently appears to downplaying the water pollution. Until recently, they only committed to testing for bacteria, which exist in much lower numbers in salt water than viruses. The AP investigation and the World Health Organization both recommended viral testing. Only in the last two weeks has the IOC acknowledged the need for viral testing, but it has yet to offer any real specifics about how these tests will be implemented before the Games.

In light of Rio’s environmental problems, as well as the human rights, construction, and cost overrun issues in recent Games, the IOC needs to be continually challenged. The IOC needs to show that the Games are not being undermined by the desire to increase IOC revenue.

When athletes and their competitions – the fundamental centerpieces of the Games – potentially could be hurt by failures of the host city and country, the other participating countries should not just be asking questions of the IOC but demanding answers.

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