RIO DE JANEIRO — The head of the governing body of world rowing said Tuesday he will ask for viral testing at the rowing venue for next year’s Rio Olympics, and he expects all other water sports in Rio to follow suit.
The move comes after an Associated Press investigation last week showed a serious health risk to about 1,400 Olympic athletes who will compete at water venues around Rio that are rife with human waste and sewage.
The Rio Olympics open in one year, Aug. 5, 2016.
Following AP’s study, the World Health Organization advised the International Olympic Committee to analyze viral levels in Rio waters.
“Together with the WHO and the IOC, we’re going to follow what they say,” Matt Smith, CEO of World Rowing, told AP. “We will ask that viral testing is done. If there is a problem, we will react. It’s our moral duty.”
Last week, the International Sailing Federation said it would seek independent viral testing in heavily polluted Guanabara Bay, the venue for Olympic sailing and wind surfing.
Smith said he has been in touch with his counterparts and expects the federations for canoeing, swimming and triathlon to also back viral tests.
Olympic canoeing and rowing will be held in the Rodrigo de Freitas lake in central Rio, and triathlon and distance swimming will take place by the famous Copacabana Beach.
In AP’s study, all Olympic water venues were shown to have dangerously high viral levels, according to water safety experts who reviewed the data.
In Rio, much of the waste and sewage goes untreated and runs down hillside ditches and streams into Olympic water venues that are littered with floating rubbish, household waste, and dead animals. The problem becomes acute with heavy rains.
AP tests did not include a lagoon bordering the Olympic Park being built in the Rio suburb of Barra da Tijuca, the heart of next year’s Olympics. The government’s own data shows that it’s one of the most polluted bodies of water in Rio.
Smith spoke at the World Rowing Junior Championships, which begins Wednesday. The event at the Olympic venue is a test event for next year’s games.
Smith said the event will go ahead despite concerns. He said the conditions were suitable, according to bacterial tests, which is all that was required until the WHO issued new guidelines following the AP study.
“For this event now we’re going forward with the information we have, the guidelines we have to make a judgment call — a risk call — on the health for the athletes,” Smith said.
Smith said there was no “B Plan” for the Olympics if viral tests show the Rodrigo de Freitas lake poses health dangers.
“We don’t have a B plan in Brazil, but we have other places in South America where we have international level rowing courses.”
He said the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo had a river course, which was probably not suitable.
Smith said it was likely that the Rio de Janeiro state government would be asked to do the testing. However, Peter Sowrey, the chief executive of the ISAF sailing body, told AP last week he would seek “independent tests to get the facts about what’s in the water.”
Six sailing courses are planned for next year’s Olympics in Guanabara Bay. Three are in the open Atlantic and could be used if the bay is found to be unsuitable.
Experts in Brazil say there are only a handful of labs in the country that can handle the complicated molecular testing needed for viral water analysis.
As Smith talked about future viral testing, hundreds of rowers practiced Tuesday on the shimmering lake beneath the famous Christ the Redeemer statute high on a mountain above.
“I mean, we’ve had no problems, it’s been great,” said American rower Lucas Manning from Westport, Connecticut.
He said he had read that viruses may be in the water, but brushed it off since they can’t be seen.
“I’m not concerned about it,” he said. “I think this rowing organization has our safety in mind. So if they are letting us row, I am sure it’s perfectly safe.”
Valeria Contreras, a 16-year-old Colombian rower, said she was also relaxed about any threat.
“In rowing, there are a lot of qualities you have to be aware of,” she said. “Viruses in the water are just one. Before we came here we were required to take a lot of medical tests and vaccinations. So we did take those. That will be enough.”