Chris Honoré: Green games for a blue planet
It’s all but impossible to not be riveted by the political drama that has been unfolding over this primary season. It’s high-stakes theater, and it’s tempting, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, to characterize it as a crossroads moment in our nation’s history.
Clearly, the electronic media has held its klieg lights on Donald Trump and the political tsunami he has caused in the GOP. But then this election is embedded with unintended consequences for our democracy. Our national discourse, therefore, remains fixated on the campaigns and the candidates and will frame our summer and fall.
But I’d like to step back — or at least try — and focus on an issue that appeared recently in the opinion pages of The New York Times. As you know, the Summer Olympic Games will be held in Brazil, beginning Aug. 5 and ending Aug. 21. When the games were awarded to Brazil in 2009, it was a huge moment for the country, which is the largest in South America. Its people were optimistic and eager to join that list of nations that have hosted the games in the past.
But now Brazil is facing a perfect storm that threatens to upend the Games and create a summer scenario that could spell disaster. We’ll see. Consider that the nation has been coping with the Zika virus, giving many visitors and athletes pause; a severe recession has slowed if not stalled an economy that many believed was increasingly dynamic; its president, Dilma Rousseff, is facing impeachment; and some 60 percent of Brazil’s Congress members are charged with a spectrum of crimes from endemic corruption to bribery and homicide.
But perhaps the perfect metaphor for what has occurred in the nation (or has failed to occur) is the condition of Rio’s Guanabara Bay, where open-water Olympic competitions will take place.
Long-distance open-water swimmer Lynne Cox, who set the overall men’s and women’s record for swimming the English Channel and was the first person to swim the Bering Strait from the U.S. to the then Soviet Union, writes in The New York Times that she is worried that athletes heading to the Games this summer are not fully aware of the risks facing them.
Raw sewage from Rio’s metropolitan area, which totals some 12 million people, flows directly into Guanabara Bay daily. That’s enough to fill 480 Olympic-size swimming pools. The bay is slated to be the site for sailing, rowing, marathon swimming and triathlon events. Already, Cox states, those who have been practicing on the bay have experienced vomiting, bouts of diarrhea and flu-like symptoms, even if they have had only cursory contact with the water.
When Dr. Rosado Spilki, a local virologist, tested the bay’s water quality, including the presence of fecal matter, he identified virus levels 1.7 million times above what would be considered dangerous for a California beach. “It is very likely that a person swimming in these waters will get infected,” he said.
Kristina Mena, of the University of Texas School of Public Health, stated that athletes who “ingested even three teaspoons of water from the Bay will have a 99 percent chance of infection.”
The promises made by Brazil when it was awarded the Olympic Games included the construction of eight water treatment plants to process the effluent from Rio. Thus far, one has been completed.
Will the bay cleanup be achieved by opening day? Brazil’s environmental secretary stated, “It’s not going to happen.”
“Ecoboats,” which have long, ineffective booms that stop bulk garbage and dead animals from reaching the Bay, are being used.
As Cox points out, there are fewer than 100 days until the Games, and “athletes should not have to swim through garbage in pursuit of their Olympic dreams.”
One solution posed by Cox to the pollution of Guanabara Bay is to demand that the venues for open-water competitions be located in another country. It is self-evident that athletes should not be required to put themselves at risk to compete in the Games. The inherent tragedy is Olympic competition represents years of commitment and extraordinary hard work. For many, to not participate is unthinkable. There has to be a solution.
Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.