Analysis: Why the open water events will captivate Olympic audiences

By Peter Dawson

And the award for the most intriguing draw of the 2016 Summer Olympics goes to…

Surprise, the open water events.

Sailing, rowing and the 10-kilometer swim certainly don’t offer the same excitement as watching Usain Bolt running the 400m, or Team USA Basketball going for a third straight gold medal.


What they do offer is a twisted schadenfreude for viewers who are itching to ridicule the IOC and the other organizers of the 2016 Games.

The pre-Olympic buzz currently centers on the numerous stories that imply a connection between the high viral water pollution levels in Guanabara Bay, the site for the sailing events, and Copacabana Beach, the coastal site for the open water swimming and rowing events located just around the corner.

The potential danger to the athletes has brought an increased level of attention to sports that have spent years floating on the periphery of the world’s biggest athletic stage.

“They say there’s no such thing as bad press, right?” said Alex Meyer, a 10-kilometer participant at the 2012 Olympics for Team USA. “This kind of press coverage may be enough to where someone is flipping through the channels and they see the event and a light bulb goes off, and that’s all it takes for someone to watch that over another sport.”

While the International Olympic Committee and Rio officials have admitted that there are bacterial deficiencies in the sewage dump sites in parts of Guanabara Bay (both legal and illegal), the International Swimming Federation (FINA) has correctly pointed out that their bacterial tests have passed all of standard water quality tests.

Confused yet?

The issue is that while there are plenty of national and international bacterial tests and standards that determine water safety, there are no international standards for viral testing.

The IOC and FINA don’t have a compelling reason (read: mandate) to perform these tests, because they might confirm what the potentially hazardous findings of the Associated Press and other news organizations have produced.

But, because of the small sample size (there have been just two sailing events since August of 2015) and the disagreement in the scientific community, the AP hasn’t been able to firmly establish that viral pathogens have a direct connection to health risks.

The confusing nature of the science and the media back-and-forth make it difficult to pick a side.

Still, when these swimmers sprint from the beach into the unknown waters just offshore, people are going to want to tune tune in. Viewers also will be scanning through their channel guides to see if a sailor falls out of the boat onto a severed limb in Guanabara Bay.

Yes, that really happened. O Globo, a newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, ran a picture of the arm in question at the end of February.

In the lead-up to the Games, Rio officials acknowledge they have missed a golden opportunity to a clean up a major environmental problem that has existed since before the bid process began.

“The IOC made the decision to hold the event a long time ago, and they don’t make that type of decision with the Open Water 10-km in mind,” Meyer said. “There is no way an organizing body is going to base the selection of a host city on 50 athletes swimming in kind of dirty water. Those are huge wheels turning.”

Maybe everything is under control, and these events will go off without a hitch. However, there’s a chance that these major governing bodies are whistling while they sprint past the graveyard.

That should make people curious. Curious to see if this country, this city, and these organizers were so desperate to host these Olympics that they willfully neglected the health of its participants.

Photo at top: Guanabara Bay, the site of the sailing events at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).