With the start of the Rio Olympics less than six months away, the city's waters continue to be a point of contention for officials, local residents and environmentalists.
As part of an Outside the Lines report on the water woes, IOC executive director of the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi spoke to ESPN about the issue. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q: How do you assess the legacy of the Olympic Games for Rio de Janeiro?
A: It's the best thing to ever happen to the city; the physical legacy that they will be leaving, the social legacy as well, which is outstanding. They are positive from that standpoint, even before the Games will start. [Hosting the Games] was very ambitious, obviously, including the [construction of Olympic Park]. But before the Games, what [Rio Olympic officials] said they would do has mainly been delivered. From this standpoint, it's very, very positive.
Q: What has been delivered that you are proud of, exactly?
A: What we are proud of as an organization is, when you have an Olympic Games, it changes the life of citizens. When you make a difference before and after the Games, you have really achieved something that is meaningful. So that's the pride. On top of that, when the event is successfully delivered, then you have achieved some new heights.
Q: What is your assessment of the water quality issues in Rio?
A: First of all, this is also part of the legacy. There were a number of ambitions exposed at the time of the [bid in 2009]. Water quality was always one of the objectives. It has improved. It's very positive to see what was promised and the ambition that was put forth at the time. We have three different situations -- the Lagoa [Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon], where canoeing and rowing will be held, Copacabana Beach, where swimming and triathlon will be, and Guanabara Bay, where sailing is. The assessment after test events -- all in all, it went well.
Q: The bid promised that 80 percent of the sewage would be collected and treated by 2016, and that did not happen. How do you feel about that?
A: Put it this way, already today we see a quantum leap forward with the introduction of pipes [to carry and process sewage]. The situation has improved compared to what it was before, with the barriers and the boats and the pipes around Guanabara Bay. Now, [the Rio committee] did set their ambitions at 80 percent. But since 2009, the situation in the country has evolved. It's become very challenging from an economic standpoint, so what they have done already at this stage is much improved from what the conditions were at the time [of the bid]. And it will continue to improve at the end of March [when the pipe around the Marina da Glória is expected to be completed]. It's not 80 percent, but it has improved since 2009. I say it's already a super-achievement.
Q: At the time of Rio being awarded the Olympic bid in 2009, how confident were you that the water issues would be resolved by 2016, or that it would reach the 80 percent figure that was promised?
A: When we work with a city, it's through a partnership and the trust that you invest at the time of the [bid] when there are a lot of questions about guarantees made. Then, there's the constant work that we do together for seven years that gets you to a certain point. So you have a level of confidence at the time you shake hands and sign the contract. Then you build from there, and it's something that goes for seven years and it's very intense and, like every relationship, it needs constant work. This is an extraordinary process, because it's based on relationships and trust with the cities.
Q: Some experts have said the IOC should have known at the time of the bid that cleaning up the water would be an impossible task. There are 6.5 million people in the area, many homes not connected to sewers, treatment facilities operating at half capacity. How do you respond?
A: When you take a step back with any of the Games being delivered and ask yourself, "What could we have done differently?" the answer is, we could have more in-house expertise or called on more outside expertise when it is not within the organization. When you look at the 2020 agenda process, we have a number of specialists we have brought on board to make sure, for example, we compare the cost in construction in Almaty [Kazakhstan, which bid on the 2022 Winter Games] with that of Beijing [which won that 2022 bid].
It was something at the time [of Rio getting awarded the Games in 2009] that we were not doing at that level, certainly from the standpoint of environmental [issues] and sustainability. From 2009, we have learned that when you have a situation that is complex, you need to bring specialized experts on board. So certainly what we have learned is that water quality is a super-important factor, and should we be in [the] same situation, we would probably ask for external support at a [greater] level than we had at the time.
Q: So you're saying that in 2009 you did not bring in outside specialists to evaluate?
A: If you go back to the report, it was always seen as a tremendous opportunity, but also a difficult one. It was one of the risks, but was also an opportunity. Terms were laid down, and the work that was done was very diligent. Now, you can always do more, and that's my message. The process can always be improved, and that is what we try to do each and every time.
Q: How confident are you that it will eventually get to the 80 percent, and is there any role for the IOC in making that happen?
A: What is [the] role of [the] IOC after the Olympic Games? From the Olympic agenda 2020, we have set for ourselves renewed ambitions when it comes to legacy. One of the things we're going to do is follow up after the Games, and continue to work with the national Olympic committees, and the cities themselves, and continue to understand what is happening after the Games, and what kind of legacy they can capitalize on. We certainly don't have a role in getting from X to 80 percent -- that will be the responsibility of the authorities of the state. But we will follow up very keenly. Because, again, it's the Games that played a catalyst role in developing infrastructure that will help citizens.
Q: Why no virus testing? Will you consider adding that in the future?
A: In the future, we will continue to follow the World Health Organization regulations and guidelines. [Editor's note: Currently, WHO guidelines ask only for bacteria testing.]
Q: Do you think 17 eco-barriers and 20 eco-boats are going to be sufficient in keeping the race courses free of debris/objects during competition?
A: Yes, because it's an improvement compared to test events. During the test events, we didn't have massive issues with athletes complaining about the competitions. So if we have an improvement in the number of measures being taken to [address the concerns], we have reason to believe we are going to have really good fields of play. Now, you cannot guarantee that 100 percent, but getting as close as we can is the objective.
Q: The fact that the water issue was not resolved in Brazil, what impact could that have on other cities thinking about bidding for the Olympics? Will it make them more careful about the promises made? Will it discourage them from bidding because they don't want these headlines?
A: The impact -- if we look at [the] situation in Rio -- are we proud of the legacy that the Games will leave the city? The answer is an unequivocal yes. I believe the Rio example -- everyone knows the magnitude and complexity of the project for the organization, and the level of ambition that they set for themselves. You need to put this in perspective. If you take a step back in a few months, you will see changes in the city that are meaningful. The Games will change the life of citizens.
Q: On the Zika virus, how concerned is the IOC about that threat? How are you dealing with it?
A: The WHO has issued a number of recommendations and they are being followed by the organizers, but it's also a country effort. Our attention is on the Olympic venues -- to dry out the areas that are wet to [limit] reproduction [of the mosquitos]. This is work that is ongoing and it's being done in concert with the WHO. We have regular contact with the organizers. Any effort being [recommended] by WHO, we are undertaking.
Q: Are you worried about attendance at the Games?
A: What will be key is information. We sent [a letter] to all NOCs [national Olympic committees] and federations to keep them apprised of the situation. This is something that will be done regularly. Then this [information] will have to be relayed to agents that are organizing travel to Brazil. So what will be really important is following what is recommended by the national health organizations, which is then relayed to the general public. We want to make sure that any information that is out there can be made available.