Through happenstance, I ended up at the women's marathon swimming Monday morning, which turned out to be one of the strangest sights of the games.
It's a 10,000-meter race in the open water off Copacabana Beach, which is basically a two-hour struggle not to drown in the decent-sized swells and filthy water. The swimmers do four laps of the course around inflatable buoys. Near the starting line, their coaches are lined up on a barge with water bottles on telescoping poles for them as they swim past, like NASCAR pit crews.
For most of it, the 26 swimmers travel in one foaming, churning, splashing pack, all heads and arms and legs surrounded by a flotilla of motorboats and kayaks while helicopters buzz overhead. At one point on the course, they’re swimming parallel to the beach only about 30 yards from it, just outside of the breakers.
There's even a referee on one of the motorboats with the ability to warn or even disqualify rough swimmers for unsporting behavior – the third-place French finisher Monday was disqualified, giving the Brazilian in fourth place the bronze – although how he can discern anything amid the tangle of body parts is hard to fathom.
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American swimmer Haley Anderson said the water wasn't that bad, although she's on antibiotics and probiotics to be safe and there was a visible film on the surface of the water in some places.
Just outside the course, fishing boats went through their normal morning routine and a Brazilian warship patrolled the area.
Meanwhile, the crowds on the beach strained to see the swimmers as they traversed the course. There's a ticketed area, where people were standing in the surf, and a public area, where people were three deep up against a wire fence. Most were watching the broadcast on the big screen; like open-road cycling, this is probably a sport best seen on television.
But it really does have to be seen to be believed.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock