Troubled water? Athletes, scientists still unsure about potential health risks in Rio

By Peter Dawson

In August of 2016, 50 Olympic open-water swimmers are expected to plunge into Copacabana Bay in Rio de Janeiro despite two Associated Press reports last year about viral contamination in nearby Guanabara Bay.

Viruses in human intestinal and respiratory tracts may cause “vomiting, explosive diarrhea and respiratory problems,” according to one of the AP reports.

But this is the Olympics.

“The worst-case scenario is that you get sick for a couple of days,  you throw up a couple of days after the race is over, and you’re fine,” said Alex Meyer, a 2012 U.S. Olympian in the 10-kilometer open-water event.

FINA, the international swimming federation, said no one reported health problems after a test event in Rio last August.

“FINA is confident that satisfactory conditions will be put in place for the participation of the marathon swimmers during the Games’ time,” executive director Cornel Marculescu said in an email. “From now until August, we will of course continue monitoring the situation and once in Rio, FINA officials, as well as safety and medical delegates, will ensure that both races can be held in the best possible conditions.”

In December 2015, the International Sailing Federation revealed to the AP that 7 percent of sailors became ill during that August test event in Guanabara Bay.

That statistic is nearly double the minimum safety standard (3.6 percent) for recreational swimming areas in the U.S.

Using the same standards for Olympic athletes and recreational swimmers is unfair, said Dr. Samuel Dorevitch, an associate professor of Environmental Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in waterborne illness. “Clearly people who are highly motivated and are in excellent health to begin with want to take that additional risk. I don’t think that’s crazy. They just need to be aware.”

The water at Copacabana Beach has met the minimum standard for bacteria in tests conducted by the International Olympic Committee and by experts hired by FINA.

But no national or international water quality testing standards for viral pathogens exist.

“There are research studies to show how high of a virus level is going to lead to high rates of illness,” Dorevitch said. “But without a lot of epidemiologic studies demonstrating what are hazardous level of viruses, there isn’t really a basis for establishing a guideline.”

Meyer, the 2012 Olympian, said he believes athletes can reduce the risk of getting sick.

“If I were them, I’d go down there and fill up a bottle of water from Copacabana Beach and put a little bit of it in my coffee every morning and start building up antibodies,” Meyer said. “There are prophylactic drugs you can take. There are a lot of ways to minimize the risk.”

But that approach can be risky.

“To take medicine not because you’re sick but to prevent sickness — not a good idea,” Dorevitch said. “People can develop symptoms as a side effect to medication. If the infection is a virus, the antibiotic wouldn’t work because it only works against bacteria.”

Still, in Meyer’s view, swimmers will take prophylactic antibiotics and compete on the sport’s biggest stage, no matter what.

“The athletes will take Ciprofloxacin or something like that before they go down then, so they’ll have some type of immunity ready,” Meyer said. “Given the opportunity at stake and the profile of this event, that pales in comparison to win a gold medal. It’s [just] a matter of perspective.”

Photo at top: Copacabana Beach in 2010, the site of the 10-kilometer open water swimming event at the Rio Olympics. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)