Brazilian sailors looking to shine on polluted Guanabara Bay
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The Rio Olympics won’t leave the legacy of a clean Guanabara Bay, the polluted harbor that will host the sailing regatta far below the imposing landmarks of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain.
There’s still going to be something for Brazil to cheer for. When the regatta starts Monday, 43-year-old Robert Scheidt will be trying to become the first Olympic sailor — and first Brazilian — to win six Olympic medals.
A few days later, a second generation of sailors from the Grael family hopes to follow their father’s path to the podium.
Most sailors are sick of talking about the viruses and trash in the bay, which is where most of Rio’s untreated sewage ends up. They say they’ve taken the proper precautions. Outwardly, they’re more concerned with the shifting wind and the tricky tides.
Scheidt is one of them. He’s looking to add to his collection of two gold medals, two silvers and a bronze. He’s back in the Laser class after the venerable Star class, in which he sailed in the last two games, was dropped.
His biggest concern will be sailing well against gold medal favorite Nick Thompson of Britain and Australia’s Tom Burton.
“I’ll be satisfied if I can get a result. That is my goal: a medal, no matter the color,” Scheidt said.
An independent study by The Associated Press has shown high levels of viruses and sometimes bacteria from human sewage in the water.
“I’ve been sailing here for more than 25 years,” Scheidt said earlier this year during a Brazilian team event. “I’ve never had a problem, not a single infection. Perhaps some athletes who’ve never sailed here have suffered something, but in general there’s no danger.”
However, German sailor Erik Heil was treated for several infections he said were caused by the polluted water during a test regatta here a year ago. He sails in the 49er class, in which the two-man crew is hiked out over the water and gets splashed the whole race. It’s also the Olympic boat most likely to capsize.
“We have been training in Rio very often,” Heil said. “We were unlucky once but never again after that, so for now we have taken all precautions and we really want to fully focus on sport.”
On Sunday, Max Groy, a coach with the German team, said the bay was the cleanest he’s seen in a while.
“It seems clearer than ever, especially in the harbor. Where it’s one meter deep, you can see the ground. I almost found that sensational, because that’s never happened before,” he said.
German Laser sailor Philipp Buhl agreed, but cautioned that the bay’s state depends on weather conditions.
“In the past seven days the water was flooding into the bay. Always when that happens, everything is fine,” he said. “So you have to differentiate. You cannot judge the bay in general. You always have to look at the circumstances. If the water is flooding out of the bay, it gets more dirty. If it’s raining, it gets really dirty.”
Buhl said he’s seen a decrease in garbage in the bay, perhaps because of barriers placed across some rivers.
“It seems like something positive happened in the harbor. In the epicenter of garbage, something happened. ... All in all, right now, I would hope that we get fair competition. But as I said before, circumstances could lead to a big change again.”
Torben Grael, who won five Olympic medals for Brazil, including two golds, is disappointed Gunabara Bay wasn’t cleaned up for the games.
“We ourselves put a lot of pressure to make it happen, but unfortunately it didn’t happen when they had money. And now they don’t have money, and so it’s even worse” Grael told Canada’s CBC television earlier this year.
“I don’t think you’re going to get sick,” Grael said. “It just looks terrible.”
Grael, also a veteran of the America’s Cup and round-the-world races, now hopes for a legacy of a different kind — more Olympic medals in the family. His daughter, Martine, is a medals favorite in the 49erFX class, with crewmate Kahena Kunze. His son, Marco, will sail with Gabriel Borges in the 49er class.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson