Picture a sunrise that revealed potholes on the Olympic track. Imagine switching on the lights in the arena hosting the Olympic gymnastics competition and seeing a thick layer of grease gleaming from the balance beam or the high bar. Those obvious safety hazards would be fixed, and quickly.
The same can't be said of pollution levels in the waters where several events will be contested at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Organizers and the International Olympic Committee itself, which is supposed to hold the host city to its promises, apparently are willing to play roulette with the health of open water swimmers, triathletes, sailors, canoe-kayakers and rowers.
Unacceptable levels of bacterial and viruses from untreated sewage, and their potential effect on athletes' health, were reported Thursday in an Associated Press investigation. The AP's examination included testing for viruses that can cause water-borne illnesses, an area of inquiry not explored by officials, who test only for bacteria.
The story comes almost exactly one year before the Rio Games are slated to open Aug. 5, 2016, and at a good time for athletes to share their thoughts: Open water swimmers are in the midst of their world championships in Kazan, Russia, and an international field of top triathletes has gathered in Rio this week for an Olympic qualifying event.
Courses for both the 10-kilometer marathon swim and the triathlon swim in Rio have been laid out off Copacabana Beach, where the AP's data showed no violation of fecal coliform limits, but did find evidence of disease-causing viruses experts say could jeopardize visiting athletes and tourists. Venues for sailing, rowing and canoe/kayak events were found to have both kinds of contamination.
Sunday's triathlon in Rio is a "test event." Olympic hosts routinely put their venues through the paces of a big competition 18 months to a year before the Games to troubleshoot potential problems. In this case, we may see the results of other inadvertent and more insidious pop quizzes. What percentage of triathletes might get sick after a 1,500-meter swim? Do athletes from Brazil have an advantage because their immune systems are inured?
Joel Filliol, a former Canadian elite triathlete and now a private coach, is in Rio with three U.S. competitors: Sarah True, Katie Zaferes and her husband, Tommy Zaferes. Filliol told me in a telephone call that he is frustrated but not surprised at the situation and has advised his athletes to refrain from their usual pre-race preview training on the swim course.
"We do that in other races if we're not sure about the water quality," Filliol said. "There's an official [safety] briefing on Friday night [with the International Triathlon Union and local officials], and I'm sure questions will be asked.
"I expect the swim to go on, and we'll just take the best precautions we can. We have to get on with it and not spend too much energy on areas we can't control."
The AP report was not a surprise to the coach or others steeped in the sport. But its level of detail and data further supports existing concerns and is maddening in its contradictions with years of official vows to clean things up.
Not every athlete navigating the Rio waters under his or her own power, or in a floating vessel, will fall ill. Many of them have dealt with this and other serious issues before. Any sport contested on or in open water carries risks and natural obstacles, including extreme temperatures, high winds and chop, poor water quality and visibility, algae blooms, stinging jellyfish and other unfriendly marine life. To some extent, confronting those conditions is part of the game. Dwelling on danger isn't a productive mindset on the eve of a critical race.
However, being exposed to germs that could have prolonged effects -- as U.S. open water swimmers Chip Peterson and Kalyn Keller Robinson may have been eight years ago in Rio, although direct causation is impossible to prove -- is not supposed to be part of the Olympic covenant.
Olympic participation is the biggest incentive that can be put before athletes in those sports. Their aqua-fields of play should be competitive safe havens, not petri dishes where their ability to protect themselves is limited to dosing with prophylactic broad-spectrum antibiotics or gargling and swallowing mouthwash or cola ("It's acidic," one athlete told me) to try to sterilize their innards afterward.
Here are reactions from some current and past elite athletes and administrators in the sports that stand to be affected by water quality in Rio:
Christine Jennings, U.S. open water swimmer: "I think it's a huge cause for concern. I'd hate it if it had to come to the point where athletes are risking their health to compete in the Olympics, an event you really can't say no to. I've swum twice in Copacabana and three [times] in Santos, and have been lucky enough not to get sick. During one of the races, our family friends drove down from Saõ Jose dos Campos and asked afterwards why I was racing when the flag on the beach said not to because the water quality was not safe that day. We were not told this the day of the race."
Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming executive director: "I feel sorry for these athletes whose personal safety could be at risk. We're putting our trust and faith in the USOC and IOC, and our plan is to provide our open water athletes with as much information as possible. We would never force them to compete. We don't have a formal committee [studying the issue] -- the primary thing we're doing is evaluating the information that's coming in. At this point, it's really a USOC, IOC, Rio organizing committee issue. Every time open water comes up, I think about Chip [Peterson] and Kalyn [Robinson]. We all understand there's no proof of a direct cause and effect, but it's still highly suspicious."
Joe Jacobi, 1992 U.S. Olympic slalom doubles canoe gold medalist and former CEO, USA Canoe/Kayak: "When it comes to the Olympic [sprint canoe/kayak] venue, our sport understands that it's a unique venue, a new build that doesn't have a long tradition or history. It's to stage a world-class, top-quality race to determine who is the best in the world. The last thing you want to be thinking about is how to keep athletes healthy on the water."
Andrew Gemmell, U.S. open water swimmer: "I am extremely disappointed with the conditions in Rio revealed by the AP's new report on water quality. The Olympics are supposed to be the pinnacle of fair sport and competition, yet it appears that the main concern for our athletes will be their health instead of their competition. I think this is just the latest in a growing list of evidence that the major governing bodies who run and organize sport have lost sight of the best interests of the athletes."
Emily Brunemann, U.S. open water swimmer: "I have been to many [races] where I have ended up very, very sick after competing. Unfortunately, it is our way to make a living. We are extremely passionate about our sport, which is why we continue to train and push ourselves beyond our limits. It is a shame that the hard work and dedication we as athletes put in day in and day out is in jeopardy because of the unsafe conditions. The athletes in the Olympics are competing for their countries, to bring back medals and to represent at the highest level. Now it is possible that the potential winners in the Olympics may be those who are lucky enough not to get sick instead of it being a true competitive race."
Jordan Rapp, U.S. Ironman triathlete, former ITU long distance world champion: "I think it gets to the heart of a lot of conflicts people have with the Olympics. All these promises are made that building all this stuff is going to have a lasting effect, and the infrastructure always gets left behind. Fool me once and fool me twice, but what happens when you get fooled 50 times? ... You have to wonder what the federations are thinking."
Kalyn Keller Robinson, retired U.S. open water swimmer: "It made me sad for the athletes that pour their blood, sweat, and tears into their sport and realize their dream to compete on the world's greatest stage and have a shot at winning a medal for their country. None of these athletes should have to worry about the safety of the venue, of all things, at this level. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the criteria a country must maintain in order to host an Olympic, Paralympic, Pan American or world championship event and ensure that the priority is on the athlete and their ability to perform in a safe and fair environment."
Chip Peterson, U.S. open water swimmer: "Honestly, I used to work in a water quality testing lab, and I don't have a strong feeling about what these viral levels mean. Certainly, it's at least something that should make us be cautious. There's not a whole lot of recourse we have as athletes. It's frustrating. I don't envy anyone's decision. If someone were to make the decision not to compete in the Olympic Games due to something like water quality, that would be a real shame. It's heart-wrenching."
Alex Meyer, U.S. open water swimmer, 2012 Olympian: "This is gross. I've swam in a lot of nasty water, including in Copacabana Beach, and at least one time [Editor's note: In a World Cup event in a river in Shantou, China, where swimmers the year before described seeing dead dogs and horses floating near the banks] in water that had raw sewage running into it. ... It's pretty clear that the quality of the event from the athlete's perspective, whether an Olympic Games or a FINA World Cup, takes a back seat to the overall image being presented to the public and media, and the profitability of the event."