The Promise Rio Couldn't Keep

Rio de Janeiro's bid for the Summer Games featured an official commitment to cleaner waters. But with less than six months to go, trash and contamination continue to lurk.


IO DE JANEIRO -- In August, barriers installed across more than a dozen of Rio's dying rivers will hold back garbage that otherwise might drift into the paths of Olympic sailors. A fleet of boats will patrol to keep debris from snagging on a rudder or centerboard and costing someone a medal. Some of the untreated human waste that has long fouled Rio's beaches and docks and picturesque lagoon will be diverted from competitive venues so the athletes who have to navigate them need not worry.

This is what has been promised, anyway. This is the latest stopgap wave of promises made when it was clear the first wave wouldn't be kept.

A brilliant, lowering sun silhouettes the irregular profile of the mountains behind Martine Grael as she stands on a beach strewn with sailboats after a day of racing at an international regatta on Guanabara Bay and voices her doubts. Grael, 25, is a newly minted member of the 2016 Brazilian Olympic team, the daughter of a gold medalist, a true child of these waters. She speaks with the sad conviction of someone watching a loved one suffer.

"It's very clear that water treatment and education are the biggest focus on cleaning the water, and I haven't seen almost anything being done in that way," Grael says. "I think Rio has a very big coastline and people love to go to the beach, but nobody seems to care that the beach is getting dirtier and dirtier.

"The water's still dirty and it stinks some days, and, I don't know. You don't need to study a lot to understand that it's not going well."

Rio's final 2009 bid book included a seven-year commitment to tackling an environmental disaster that took decades to create. The widespread absence of modern sanitation was spun into an asset by the leaders of Rio's campaign. The direct, flattering appeal to the International Olympic Committee was this: Bestow the transformative power of your three-week event on our city. We need the Games more than Chicago does, more than Madrid.

The bid language stated that 80 percent of overall sewage would be collected and treated by 2016, and it pledged the "full regeneration" of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where rowing and sprint canoe/kayak events will be held.

The same bid document asserted that the Brazilian economy was stable and called funding for Rio 2016 "secure." Six months shy of the opening ceremony, however, recession reigns, inflation rages in double digits and the Games budget has taken a significant hit. Brazil's public health system, already reeling, now must cope with the burgeoning Zika virus epidemic.

Government and organizing committee officials long ago dropped the pretense that the bid's targets for reducing pollution would be met.

"It's not going to happen because there was not enough commitment, funds and energy," Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada told Outside the Lines. "However, we finally got something that the bay has been missing for generations, which is public will for the cleaning.

"Nobody wants to have guests at their house and show a dirty house. So if we're not able to reach the target, we need to keep working until the last minute and make sure that the athletes can compete in safe waters, and we've been doing this."

This is hardly the first time a gap has opened up between an Olympic sales pitch and its actual execution. Sydney struggled to meet cleanup targets in its famous harbor before the 2000 Games and is still waging the battle. Beijing 2008 was deemed "the most polluted Olympics in history" by researchers because of its smog, despite the Chinese government's mandate that idled cars and shut down factories. The upshot? No permanent improvement in air quality, yet Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Games.

The International Olympic Committee -- the only entity with the leverage to ride herd on bid promises -- hasn't pulled the Summer Games from a peacetime city in more than a century. IOC executive director of the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi maintained the organization's stance that the waters will be safe for competition and whatever progress can be attributed to the Summer Games is better than none.

"The situation has improved compared to what it was before, with the barriers and the boats and the pipes around Guanabara Bay," Dubi told Outside the Lines on Thursday. "It's become very challenging from an economic standpoint, so what [Rio has] done already at this stage is much improved from what the conditions were at the time [the city won the bid]. It's not 80 percent [as the bid promised], but it has improved since 2009. I say it's already a super-achievement. ... It's the Games that played a catalyst role in developing infrastructure that will help citizens."

But Brazilian-born journalist and author Juliana Barbassa, whose hopes for cleansing change in Rio swelled when the city won the bid, finds the backtracking deeply distressing. Her recent book, "Dancing with the Devil in the City of God," paints an unvarnished portrait of Rio's environmental and social challenges. She says the Olympics will not result in wholesale urban alchemy, and adds that accountability for what was left undone should start and end at home.

"We had, as we say here, the knife and the cheese in hand," Barbassa says by phone from Rio. "For a moment, we had the money, the political will, the deadline, the eyes of the world to deal with a very important issue that matters in the daily life of Rio residents." The windows of her parents' home in the affluent Barra da Tijuca neighborhood are open, she says, and the smell of sewage is wafting in from the Marapendi Lagoon.

Rio's Water Woes

Despite cleanup promises, waters at the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics are still contaminated by bacteria and viruses. Tom Farrey has the latest from Rio de Janeiro.ESPN


The same smell elbows its way through a lowered car window on the route to and from Rio's international airport, where a section of highway skirts dumping grounds on inner Guanabara Bay. A local driver tips passengers to it without flinching, wedging into the closest lane during a typically epic rush hour to give them a noseful.

Profound and intractable as the city's sanitation problems are, the precise risks to Olympic athletes competing on any given day this summer are hard to calculate. Some got sick at sporting test events last year, but none of these cases has been publicly, definitively connected to the water, as opposed to food or another source.

"Epidemiology is a science of population health, not individual health," says Joseph Eisenberg, a University of Michigan professor of epidemiology who studies waterborne disease pathways. "It's statistical association, not deterministic." In the event of a large-scale outbreak, suspect environments would be tested, he says. But no team of scientists in hazmat suits rushed to the scene to investigate the microbes that caused stomach bugs in a smattering of athletes.

Several cases received worldwide attention, amplified by the findings of an ongoing Associated Press investigation based on independent testing that revealed frightening levels of bacterial and viral contamination at and around Olympic venues. The series prompted public debate about whether Brazilian authorities should test for viruses, but the government and Rio 2016 organizers defended their methods as consistent with World Health Organization standards.

The most graphic of the athlete afflictions was a nasty skin infection that carved a chunk out of the calf of German sailor Erik Heil and later was attributed to MRSA -- a multiresistant bacterium that flourishes in hospital settings but also has afflicted some in dry-land sports.

But for now, there's no conclusive cause and effect for Heil's or any other recent case. There is only speculation, supposition and an inability to rule it out. Experts with access to raw data use models, such as the QMRA (Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment), to make projections on waterborne illness, but water quality at any of the Olympic venues can vary daily with rain, wind, currents and tide. A person's susceptibility depends on age, genetics, immune system and previous exposures.

Athletes will get multiple vaccinations, douse themselves with hand sanitizer, shower as quickly as they can after racing and resort to home remedies from Listerine to Jagermeister, but no one can guarantee what precautions might be effective.

Outside the Lines obtained a confidential U.S. Olympic Committee planning document written in October 2015 that states, "The USOC has ongoing concerns over possible existing viral and bacterial contaminants in the water. ... The USOC remains hopeful, but we do not expect to anticipate major reductions [italics are the USOC's] in bacterial or viral pathogen levels at the competition venues.

"There is currently no way to 'zero out' the risk of infection or illness when competition occurs in any water, and especially in Rio waters," the document states.

The USOC does not have the authority to order water athletes to withdraw because of the conditions and is focusing instead on providing information along with beefed-up medical counsel, according to CEO Scott Blackmun.

“The water's still dirty and it stinks some days, and, I don't know. You don't need to study a lot to understand that it's not going well.”

- Martine Grael, sailor on 2016 Brazilian Olympic team

"The water in Rio is dirty," Blackmun told Outside the Lines in an interview last week. "We need to do everything we can to prevent our athletes from getting sick while they're down there. But our athletes have competed in difficult conditions around the globe on many, many, many occasions in the past, and it's just a matter of making sure our preparations are specifically targeted to the conditions we're going to find in Rio."

Haley Anderson, who won an open-water silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics and has qualified to swim in Rio, says she will depend on her coaches, USA Swimming and the USOC to advise her truthfully about safety.

Well-meaning outsiders are "telling you so many different things, like, 'You shouldn't, you can't swim there, there's no way,' Anderson said, sitting next to a pristine pool in Los Angeles late last year, her frustration evident. "It's like, 'OK. You make the Olympic team and then you decide not to swim. You tell me how that goes.'"

Few athletes of any nationality care to dwell on the subject. They're trained to play the schedule and focus on what they can control. There are exceptions, such as Martine Grael, who says she has hauled discarded television sets out of the water during training sessions, and Dutch windsurfer Dorian van Rijsselberghe, the defending Olympic champion. An ambassador for the Netherlands-based nonprofit Plastic Soup Foundation, van Rijsselberghe called the conditions in Rio "disgustingly filthy and dangerous" in a blog written after he won the Copa Brasil de Vela event in Guanabara Bay in December:

"A member of our coaching staff almost puked while entering the Olympic harbor," van Rijsselberghe wrote in text translated and posted on the foundation's website.

"Raw sewage. The athletes do not talk about it. ... They are not there to challenge the world's environmental issues. But the athletes are all concerned and deeply worried.

"I am happy I won last week. Maybe I won because I had the least amount of debris on my fin."

The contrast between Rio's topographic beauty and the horrors in its waters shocked van Rijsselberghe in his first race there in 2013. "We had to slalom through the water to avoid plastic garden chairs, a refrigerator, [dead] animals," he says in a phone interview. He saw fewer large floating objects this time and knows of no Dutch athlete who got sick, but he is still disturbed by the conditions. "It's not as simple as putting a few filters here or there," he says.

Other athletes admit to something that might be called anticipatory survivors' guilt. They know they can parachute into Rio for a few days or a couple of weeks and jet back to cleaner water and attentive doctors. And now that researchers are working furiously to figure out how to contain the mosquito-borne Zika virus linked to birth defects, who's going to gripe about gastrointestinal distress or a skin rash?

U.S. triathlete Sarah True, 34, is making plans designed to minimize any health roulette. She will travel to Rio just before her event, missing most of the Games and eschewing any swim training on the course off Copacabana Beach. Yet even as she focuses on one all-consuming goal, she says she can't ignore how she fits into the bigger picture.

"From everything I understand, the worst that can happen with the race is that a couple of days later, I might get a little sick," says True, who finished fourth at the 2012 Olympics. "In the very large scheme of things, that's a risk I'm willing to take. I'm far more concerned for the people who live there, who were made these grand promises to improve their environment.

"They could have made some really huge changes. That was supposed to be one of the net benefits. For those promises not to be delivered on is appalling to me."

Some put little stock in them. Rio's already diluted legacy for its waters came as no surprise to experts who understood the scope of the challenge.

"How could the [International] Olympic Committee have proceeded under the assumption that it wouldn't be a problem?" says William Pan, a Duke University assistant professor of global environmental health. "It's well-known in the scientific community that the water quality in Rio is not very good. It's not a surprise that athletes coming for the Olympics are really worried about being exposed to different pathogens in the water, because they are going to be.

"It's good it's coming to light. I'm not sure what to do about it. You can't clean water quickly."

Some families in Rio have flat-screen TVs but have to rig their own septic systems. Mario Moscatelli


Pablo Nunes Meireles fidgets in his flip-flops on the deck of the mini eco-boat, eager to demonstrate how he has learned to help police his hometown waters. He is a wiry 14-year-old with black-framed glasses, holding a long-handled dip net that, along with his natural optimism, is currently his most effective weapon against the ruinous conditions around him.

The boat starts moving, scooping garbage on the surface into its belly. The boy lowers the net, its strings yellowed with use, through an open hatch and lifts it back out, emptying the contents -- a juice box, a plastic wrapper, assorted gunk -- into a bin. With his bare hand, he matter-of-factly plucks a used condom from the rim of the net and flings it into the bin. Being a good citizen is not always pretty.

Pablo and his older stepbrother Hugo live in the district of the state of Rio called Jurujuba, across the bay from the city of Rio, adjacent to the town of Niteroi. Pablo's mother, a teacher, is married to Hugo's father, a construction worker.

Their stucco-and-cinder-block house sits high on a hill in a neighborhood called Peixe Galo -- a favela without the ominous aura of the inner city, but a place where crime and drugs still detour teenagers' lives. The setting embodies the juxtaposition of Rio's rich and poor. The favela overlooks the exclusive Clube Naval Charitas yacht club, whose tennis courts and swimming pool are visible through thick foliage from homes built into the hillside.

Families like Pablo's have amenities such as flat-screen televisions, but they have to rig their own septic fields. The water from the family's sinks and toilet empties into a length of PVC that leads to a scavenged washing machine cemented into the hillside. Another pipe disperses the wastewater into the ground.

The kids in Peixe Galo and other struggling neighborhoods in the area do have access to a different kind of oasis. Down the hill and across the street is the Grael family's Instituto Rumo Nautico/Projeto Grael, perched above the water in a renovated restaurant building painted a warm shade of ochre. Its driving force is Brazil's most prominent sailing clan -- two-time Olympic gold medalist Torben Grael, Martine's father; his brother Lars, a double bronze medalist; and their older brother, Axel, whose wife, Christa, manages the institute on a day-to-day basis.

The program puts disadvantaged kids into sailboats starting at age 9. As they fall in love with the wind and sea and the freedom to choose a line, the idea is that they will learn to respect and care for the environment. They attend classes, work on the Projeto's dedicated eco-boat and learn trades such as woodworking, fiberglass repair and electronics.

"It's the only thing we have," Pablo says of Guanabara Bay. "I think that folks, people looking in from the outside, see something, like, dirty, but I think it can be fixed."

Axel Grael is the vice mayor of Niteroi and a former state environmental official who participated in his first antipollution protest in 1980 to stop sardine boats from dumping fish viscera into Guanabara Bay. Since then, he has seen a few cycles of activism and energy gather momentum and then fizzle.

"If you compare Rio with all the other Olympic cities, it's not the first time that an Olympic city doesn't reach the target," Grael says. "But still, I'm sure that Rio de Janeiro is going to be the worst Olympic [sailing] course ever offered. It's embarrassing that we're offering such poor conditions. It could have been much better."

Grael is referring to the trash dumped into Guanabara Bay, not potential illness among the sailors. He doesn't remember anyone in his extended family getting sick from the water, and he believes that won't be a problem for foreign athletes this summer. But garbage has become such a feature of Rio's oceanscape that it has to be tracked.

Last year, as part of a greater strategic plan that included designing the eco-barriers that are being constructed across the area's rivers, Projeto Grael helped develop an intelligent model to locate the bands of debris that form in Guanabara Bay, using floats with GPS to map the currents. "The idea was to predict [one day in advance] where the garbage will be tomorrow," Grael says. "The [eco-]boats are very slow. They start working at 8 in the morning. If they have to find the debris stripes, it's about time to stop for lunch."

The valiant little eco-boats are better than nothing, but they're bandages on a gaping wound. Sailors like Brad Funk, a U.S. athlete who competes in the 49er class, have to become proficient at pulling plastic bags and other objects off rudders and centerboards as quickly as possible.

"In [other] places, you get seaweed," Funk says after a day of racing on Guanabara Bay in December. "It's just a part of our sport. But it definitely happens more here, and they definitely need more boats out there.

"You're weaving in and out of trash and imagining where the center of your boat is, trying to get around pieces of furniture, or garbage bags, or animals, whatever. Then it's beautiful and blue and you're looking at the breeze. It can be an obstacle course. Especially when it rains."

The Associated Press' testing showed high levels of viral contamination in the bay even well offshore, on the racing courses. Yet the sailors say they love Rio's singular setting and its purer challenges of wind and currents, and no serious consideration was given to an alternate site. Peter Sowrey, former CEO of sailing's world governing body, told the AP he was ousted after just five months on the job last year because he pushed for just that. The federation issued a statement saying Sowrey's claim 'surprised' officials there, and Sowrey could not be reached for further comment.

Even in the pretty little harbor where the Graels' institute stands like a beacon, there's debris visible in the water. Near a beach a few hundred yards away, a doll floats facedown, stripped of clothing, hair fanned out limply around the head. It is disturbingly humanoid, a mute rebuttal to the best of efforts.

Kim Badawi for ESPN


Aboard the 32-foot boat motoring slowly through Marina da Gloria, adjacent to the area where Olympic sailors will launch, Mario Moscatelli stands astern, holding a Canon camera with a long lens. He points it at the water's surface when he sees floating objects that appear to have the color and consistency of fecal matter. "S---. S---. A lot of s---," he says later on camera, hitting the consonants like a snare drum.

The biologist wears plastic clogs, blue camo pants, a multipocketed vest and a ball cap with the emblem of the USCSS Nostromo, the starfreighter from "Alien."

"I love science fiction," Moscatelli says in choppy but determined English. "I love 'Star Wars,' 'Alien,' 'The Terminator.' I have my mythology about the environmental problems. I do [have] a relationship between my reality and the movies. It's [how] my mind works." He inhales. "Because I fight with this whole situation."

Moscatelli takes pollution personally, as if it were slime dripping from the jaws of a monster threatening his family. By his informal count, this tour with an Outside the Lines crew will be his 15th pre-Olympic outing with reporters, who are far more receptive to his message than his fellow Brazilians, he says. His protests sometimes attract a mere 15 or 20 die-hards. "I don't understand what happens in mind of the Cariocas," he says, referring to Rio natives.

He has an ally in a former schoolmate and friend, microbiologist Rosemary Vega, who has participated in his rallies. Vega, a petite, energetic woman who works in a hospital lab, grew up swimming at Flamengo Beach in the heart of the city. She hasn't entered the water anywhere in Rio for eight years because she's afraid of what's in it.

Her concern ramped up after reading a 2014 scientific journal article that said strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- types normally found in hospital settings, the same ones she studies in the lab -- had been found in single water samples taken from two Rio beaches, Flamengo and Botafogo. "They underwent genetic mutations to become resistant," Vega says. "I always tell students, 'You know, they're much smarter than we are. They want to preserve their species.'"

Moscatelli wants to tour areas farther up the bay where garbage is deposited onshore by wind and tide. The boat putters past the domestic airport, the downtown area and the stunning, winged profile of the new Museum of Tomorrow. At Duque de Caxias, a community where sewage treatment is almost nonexistent, the tide is too low to allow shore access, but the reeking silt is self-explanatory.

On the island of Pombeba, the stench is impressively, chokingly putrid. Moscatelli points across blackened mudflats to a cluster of mangrove trees, just a few of the thousands he has planted in compromised waters around Rio, hoping the toxins they filter from the water will serve as a rearguard action against those who poison it, the stormtroopers of his narrative.

Pale fuchsia flowers bloom incongruously on trailing ground cover. A fluorescent bulb explodes underfoot. At the fringe of the vegetation is a swath of detritus: candy wrappers, a black strapless bra, a tire, a car bumper, a deflated miniature soccer ball, a hot pink child's wallet, a headless troll doll, a toy animal with a Brazil No. 8 soccer jersey, a faded, torn gray roller suitcase, a knapsack filled with sand, a soccer shoe with a partially detached sole, a baby formula canister, a stroller wheel, a toothpaste tube and dozens of plastic bags, cups and bottles that once held soda, mouthwash, mustard and household cleaners -- the main ingredients of the "soup" van Rijsselberghe and others deplore.

A small zipper pouch with a brown-and-white design stands out amid the everyday objects. Inside is a national identification card with the photograph and fingerprint of a 76-year-old woman and other intimate items, sodden and permeated with the same rancid odor as the rest of the anonymous junk. Her name is a common one, and there is no address. An online search for her proves fruitless. There's no way to tell whether she is still alive, or how far her laminated face might have traveled on the currents in the bay.

Rio's water woes

An aggregate look at problem areas in Rio's waterways. Larger circles indicate a higher percentage of areas that failed to meet standards during testing conducted throughout 2015.

Guanabara Bay

Ilha Pombeba



Marina da Gloria

Botafogo Bay


Olympic Park

Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas

Barra da Tijuca

Sao Conrado


Barra de Guaratiba

Instituto Estadual do Ambiente


In the shade of an umbrella near the start-finish arch of the King and Queen of the Sea race, open-water swimmer Chip Peterson sits quietly with American teammate Christine Jennings. A happy, chattering crowd convenes near the promontory on the south end of Copacabana Beach, waiting to see Peterson and the rest of an invitation-only pro field that includes past and potential Olympians.

Courses for the Olympic 10-kilometer swim and the triathlon swim leg will be laid out in August against this dramatic juxtaposition of sea and mountains and sun-bleached buildings that line the crescent of sand like a string of mismatched pearls. Aside from the telegenic backdrop, Copacabana offers a sheltered beachfront, churned by wind and tide but not as exposed as nearby Ipanema or Leblon.

Peterson, 28, came to Rio for the first time in 2007 to race in the Pan American Games. He had won a world 10K championship as a precocious 17-year-old and was aiming for a start in the inaugural Olympic event at Beijing 2008.

Within a couple of months of that race, doctors told Peterson he had ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease whose flare-ups required increasingly long hospitalizations. Illness derailed his attempts to make two successive Olympic teams. Peterson ultimately opted to have his colon removed. Once recovered, he resumed elite competition but fell short in his bid to qualify for Rio.

“'A little bit of diarrhea is worth a gold medal' is something that I've heard from athletes out there.”

- American open-water swimmer Chip Peterson

Researchers believe both genetic and environmental factors influence the disease. Peterson can't prove the water here set it off, but the dotted line grew darker when U.S. teammate Kalyn Keller Robinson was told she suffered from a related condition, Crohn's disease, after the same 2007 race. She retired shortly afterward. No other swimmer they know of was similarly affected. They are their own mysterious cluster of two.

Why would Peterson dive back into waters that might have cost him so much? For the same reason many athletes will gamble this summer: The risk is less tangible than the possible reward. "In some ways, I think the worst happened, and maybe lightning doesn't strike twice," says Peterson, who also raced in Rio in 2014. "There's no way to know that it wouldn't have been triggered somewhere else some other time.

"'A little bit of diarrhea is worth a gold medal' is something that I've heard from athletes out there."

The Associated Press investigation found bacterial levels at Copacabana in the acceptable range, less alarming than Guanabara Bay or the lagoon, and detected low levels of viral contamination this past August. Government testing shows it is nearly always fit for swimming.

Luiz Lima, a two-time Brazilian Olympic swim team member, trains off Copacabana daily with a club called the Gladiatores and says he feels perfectly safe. "The problem is the trash," he says, standing near the water's edge. "People in Brazil don't put trash in the trash."

Steven Munatones, longtime international open-water event organizer and founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association, has made several prior trips to Rio and says the water quality -- judged by taste, smell, visibility and his own lack of symptoms afterward -- is usually very good. Out of roughly 60 times he's swum at Copacabana, he can recall only one day when conditions were, as he says, "gross."

Open-water swimmers, a self-reliant breed, often deal with sketchy water in Rio and elsewhere by applying Vicks VapoRub to their nostrils as an odor barrier before a race, swishing mouthwash to kill germs or downing a flat Coke afterward to settle their insides. German swimmers Christian Reichert and Angela Maurer say they swear by a shot of Jagermeister on postrace evenings. Jennings, who recently retired from elite competition, says she and others sometimes resorted to preventive antibiotics.

Munatones says there is a worst-case scenario for Olympic events at Copacabana that could play out if three natural phenomena were to converge: heavy rains in the days before that would send runoff from the streets sloshing onto the sand, wind from the northeast bearing garbage from the bay, and a low tide that would cause refuse and bacteria to clot in the race area. He notes that August falls in the dry season and that the odds of the wind and tide being just right, or just wrong, are relatively low.

FINA, swimming's international governing body, tracked athletes after the August 2015 10K test event and reported that none fell ill. However, the day of the race was windy, and Brazilian swimming official Ricardo Ratto says the last six years of meteorological data show that particular week in August is the roughest of the year.

There is no contingency site, and the open-water and triathlon events are stacked up in the second week of the Games. The women's triathlon is slated for the day before the closing ceremony. If water quality or conditions deteriorate, it will be hard for officials to pivot.

A lifelong ocean swimmer and the son of a marine biologist, Peterson says Rio's water issues need to be addressed for reasons far beyond his story.

"We're putting a lot of emphasis on it because there's an event that has 50 athletes competing in it, but it's a city of 6 million people who don't have the same level of water treatment and all the amenities that we're so used to back in the U.S.," Peterson says. "Globally, pumping sewage into our ecosystem is not going to be doing anyone any good, for generations to come."


Andrew Kallfelz, who rowed for Cornell University in the late 1980s, feared what his two daughters might encounter when they competed at the world junior rowing championships on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon this past August. He'd read the AP reports and seen pictures of the periodic fish die-offs that choke the water's surface with silver carcasses.

He was pleasantly surprised. "We got down there thinking it was going to be a sewer, and it was gorgeous," Kallfelz says. "I never saw a piece of trash, and it didn't smell."

Still, given what might be lurking at the microscopic level, it was slightly unsettling to see his then-16-year-old daughter, Eliza, capsize and scramble back into her boat while competing in the semifinals of the single sculls event. "I think there was a moment of 'Oh my god, I'm now floating in this,'" her father says. But Eliza stayed healthy, while members of the U.S. entourage who didn't have any direct exposure to the water got sick.

It was a stressful journey for the U.S. junior team, which became the focus of intense interest when 13 athletes and four staff members fell ill during the event with bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. No other team in Rio had nearly the same extent of illness. The on-site team doctor and one coach -- two-time Olympic gold medalist Susan Francia, who also got the bug -- told The Associated Press at the time that they suspected contaminated water was the culprit.

The story briefly blew up again in December when longtime IOC member Anita DeFrantz told ESPN's Mike & Mike radio show that the young rowers had gotten food poisoning from ice cream. She later apologized for passing on misinformation. U.S. Rowing CEO Glenn Merry says an internal review couldn't establish any one common link among the cases.

Longtime U.S. Rowing physician Jo Hannafin says polling of other teams didn't yield answers, either. "The U.S. was the blip when they looked at data across the board," she says. To prevent a repeat episode, the federation is relying on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the medical commission of FISA, the sport's international governing body.

“The problem is the trash. People in Brazil don't put trash in the trash.”

- Luiz Lima, a two-time Brazilian Olympic swim team member

The lagoon, shaped like a fat letter C, lies just north of Ipanema Beach beneath the mountain topped by the open-armed statue of Christ the Redeemer. A canal connects its south bank to the ocean. Government authorities test the lagoon's water in six locations daily for E. coli bacteria levels and determine whether secondary contact -- rowing and various kinds of boating -- is recommended. Sometimes the color-coded view of the lagoon posted online is all green for days at a time; sometimes it's red; sometimes it's some of both. The Associated Press testing last year found higher levels of viral contamination there than at any other venue and spikes to over 16 times the fecal coliform count allowable for secondary contact under national law.

The U.S. will send 48 rowers to Rio, and they will be as forewarned and forearmed as the federation can make them, starting with squeeze bottles of hand sanitizer that will be distributed on the flight to Brazil.

Hannafin says the athletes have been asked to get hepatitis A vaccinations and polio boosters and take the oral typhoid vaccine. Their oar handles will be bleached and their boats washed inside and out after each training session or competition. Gear will be laundered at a high enough temperature to kill microbes. "Track bites" -- the nicks rowers get on the backs of their calves from their sliding seats -- will be cleaned and covered to reduce the chance of infection. Probiotics screened by the USOC will be on the training table.

As a whole, the measures are more extensive than what U.S. rowing teams have done in past years, but they're also simply commonsense protocol for any elite athlete who travels extensively. Officials are trying to view the new awareness as a positive. "It has heightened everyone's concern," says Curtis Jordan, U.S. Rowing's high performance director. "We'll have people's attention when we tell them how to handle the hygiene issue."

Jordan watched Dutch juniors celebrate at the worlds in Rio by jumping into the lagoon and isn't sure he could restrain Olympic athletes from doing the same. "They just can't jump in before," he says.

Paddleboarding at sunset, Botafogo Kim Badawi for ESPN


The 2012 London Olympics closed with the traditional convocation summoning the youth of the world to gather in 2016. And they are coming to Rio, driven by the vision of those moments that come only every four years. They will take their chances in these waters while the Olympic decision-makers watch from a safe distance, hoping their choices won't backfire.

The event probes every weakness of a host country. Homeless and poor people are routinely swept aside. Buildings thought to have long shelf lives stand empty afterward. Bills pile up. In Rio's case, needed capital projects such as new roads and public transit are counterbalanced by what was not done, the lost opening to effect sweeping change in the most elemental part of its identity.

Leonardo Espindola, chief of staff for the governor of Rio de Janeiro, insists that the Games are not a finish line and that the environmental initiatives will continue. The IOC also says it plans to continue to monitor Rio's progress after the Games, according to Dubi.

"The Games also served to spark attention from everyone, from all of society -- not just in Brazil but also in several places around the world -- to the importance of Guanabara Bay," Espindola told Outside the Lines. "So maybe that's the main legacy, the fact that we raised attention, didn't give up on Guanabara Bay and are showing that it's possible to have a bay that's ready for the Olympic Games."

Author Barbassa says she is not convinced and wonders whether a tipping point will be reached where her coastal city could become virtually landlocked.

"If you come here, and you engage with this place, you do fall in love with it, and it hurts to see it in this condition," she says.

"If you want to think of who are the victims, it's the kids who have to grow up next to that stuff, not able to engage in the environment they live in without a serious threat to their health."

The last place Moscatelli wants to visit on his tour is right in the middle of the Rio 2016 ecosystem, 2 miles from Marina da Gloria, just over a mile from Copacabana. On an official tourist map, an umbrella tilted to one side -- the universal symbol for a place to stroll and swim -- marks Botafogo Beach. In real life, pigeons pick at a skin of sludge where the sand meets the water. Clumps of rotting algae rock gently in the shallows. Garbage and graffiti are splashed randomly across nearby riprap. It's a cloudless 90-degree day at the start of the national holiday break, but this beach is empty, chronically declared unsafe for recreational use. A pair of soccer goals occupy it like lonely sentries.

The water close to shore in the contained area is calm. As the camera crew closes in on the grimy innards of a large rectangular wastewater chute, filming from a small inflatable craft, a man rides by on the bike path overhead and yells in Portuguese: "Show to everyone this trash."

Leaving Botafogo, the powerboat plows through striations of clear water and debris. Tail eddies whirl with indeterminate scum in its wake. "Where is the eco-boat?" Moscatelli says, shrugging for emphasis. "It is impossible."

Ahead, sailors skim swiftly in formation on Guanabara Bay. Tidy pleasure boats bob in the harbor beneath the majestic, soaring profile of Sugarloaf Mountain. A cable car ferries sightseers from its 1,300-foot-high rounded peak to nearby Morro da Urca, 500 feet below. The view is spectacular and unblemished from up there.

Outside the Lines reporter Tom Farrey and producer Justine Gubar contributed to this report.

Bonnie D. FordFord is a senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine.

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