How you feel about the water in Rio depends almost entirely on what boat you’re in.
If you’re an Olympic sailor in a 49er, a speedy, two-person monohull, it’s not so bad. Or at least, not as bad as expected, or not as bad as it was three years ago when Olympic teams started training here.
If you’re a fisherman who has fished these waters for 35 years, as Gilmar Ferreira has, it just continues to get worse.
“They haven’t cleaned anything,” Ferreira said, in Portuguese, as he motored his boat through the bay Wednesday. “It would take 30 years to clean this up.”
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Ferreira’s 40-foot boat, the HMJ5, all weathered wood with blue paint chipping away, is anchored in a small fishing marina in the upscale neighborhood of Urca, at the bottom of Guanabara Bay, only a few miles south of the sailing venue. From there, he heads out of the bay, past Sugarloaf Mountain and Copacabana Beach and into the Atlantic Ocean to fish.
There used to be dolphins in the bay. There used to be more fish. The water used to be cleaner.
“Swim?” Ferreira said. “I used to swim. Not anymore.”
Of all the concerns over Rio’s ability to host these games – crime, infrastructure, Zika – nothing has resonated like the water. The floating garbage, body parts washing ashore and athletes getting sick during training made the strongest, most tangible impression on the world.
Cleaning up the water, and Guanabara Bay in particular, was supposed to be the lasting legacy of these Olympics, not the athletes village (which will become luxury housing) nor the venues in the Olympic park (which are supposed to become training centers but will likely, as with so many Olympics past, slowly crumble into disrepair). There was never enough money, enough political muscle behind it.
The garbage and sewage that flow out of the hills and into the ocean, unchecked, will continue to flow unchecked after the Olympics have packed up and gone. They’ve cleaned up the sailing areas, noticeably for those who have been navigating in them for three years in preparation. The rest of the bay remains as dirty as ever, coated in places with a slick of tiny plastic debris even when there aren’t visible chunks of garbage, let alone invisible bacteria lurking.
Whatever the legacy of Rio’s Olympics turns out to be, it won’t be the water. Everyone who plies the bay knows that now, the people who make their living on it and the people who compete on it. No one knows it better than they do.
“This is what we always say: We come here, we sail the games here, we leave,” said Ivan Bulaja, a Croatian-born coach for the Austrian team. “The people of Rio, maybe something should have been done for the people here, for their futures. Not for us.”
Sweeping for garbage
The Olympic sailors are based at the Marina da Gloria, which has become a bustling village of Olympic racing boats on trailers, the motorboats their coaches use at docks and the shipping containers used as offices and workshops. Most have been coming here to train regularly since the London games ended, trying to adjust to Rio’s tricky, shifting winds.
There are six racing courses, three in the bay, three in the ocean. The ocean courses, sailors say, are gorgeous, with emerald green water. The bay courses have gotten better over the past three years, but they had a long way to go.
“The physical debris is worse after it rains,” said Evan Aras, the 49er coach with the U.S. team. “We’ve gotten a little lucky. We haven’t had anyone get sick. We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.”
Bulaja, the Austrian coach, has been to Rio 12 times in the past four years, for 20 days at a time. He’s lucky; he spends most of his time on a motorboat, coaching. At first, his sailors couldn’t get through a single race on the bay without stopping five times to clear garbage. It’s better now.
“They’ve tried,” said Jena Hansen, a 49er sailor from Denmark. “They did a lot from the first time we were here. It’s a lot cleaner. There’s not as much you can see.”
Local authorities have made a concerted effort to sweep the water for garbage, and while there’s not much they can do about the bacteria, not as many athletes have gotten sick as was once feared. That could be a bigger issue for the triathletes and marathon swimmers, who will be in the presumably slightly cleaner water off Copacabana. They were warned last week to become open-water, closed-mouth swimmers.
Unavoidably, sailors end up in the water as well. Tuesday, when winds picked up, sailors were capsizing and swimming all over the place.
Boats stopped by trash
The garbage is more than a nuisance. Sailing is as much about friction and momentum as wind. A single plastic shopping bag, dragging from a daggerboard or tiller for only a minute, can create enough drag lose a race at the fine margins of Olympic competition. Stopping to clear it is an additional time penalty.
“There are lines of trash everyone has to cross when you’re racing,” Bulaja said. “In the end, things even out. Everybody takes a bag or two. Some days it’s horrible. A lot of days.”
When a boat’s moving fast enough, and with enough wind, a 49er can go in excess of 25 miles per hour. A big enough piece of debris can stop a boat dead in the water, instantly.
“You see some people hit trash and they get catapulted away, especially downwind,” Hansen said. “It’s not so bad upwind. We look for it as we look for seaweed. We were in Clearwater (Fla.) and the seaweed was really bad there. So it’s kind of the same.”
A point separates the sailing marina from the bay itself. On the other side of the point, only a few hundred feet from the grid of shipping-container offices, there’s a small, beautiful, white sand beach, a little cove nibbled from the otherwise rocky shoreline.
It looks like something from a swimsuit photo shoot, other than the high-tide line, where there’s a solid ring of deposited garbage against the rocks: clear, white, red, blue, green; 2-liter bottles, detergent bottles, small water bottles, plastic bags, take-out containers, random chunks of styrofoam and even a few loose pieces of steel rebar.
In Urca, outside of the little marina where Ferreira moors his boat, there’s a retaining wall facing the bay, a road running above it, carried over the inlet to the marina by a small bridge. The wall is covered with city-sponsored graffiti. One mural is of a fish, its ribcage exposed, its insides filled with garbage. The inscription reads, “Não jogue lixo” – do not litter, equal parts hopeful and entirely ineffective.
“Thirty-five years ago, you’d see fish,” Ferreira said. “You wouldn’t see pollution like this.”
The Olympics may yet go off without a hitch here, but their would-be legacy isn’t going to happen. It has been thrown away, like so much else in this water.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock