From the sky, the world famous beaches of Rio de Janeiro look pristine. Blue waters, white sand, and colorful beach umbrellas dot the shoreline. From up close, however, tons of trash pollute the waters, which also swirl with dead fish and the raw sewage of millions of people.
During the imminent summer Olympics, the city’s polluted Guanabara Bay will play host to swimmers, triathletes, sailors, and other athletes. Yet experts say that swallowing just a tiny amount of water — a certainty for swimmers — carries a 99% chance of becoming dangerously sick.
And if that wasn’t enough, Brazil is facing its worst economic recession in 100 years, the president was just impeached, and the Zika virus is rampant. One crisis would be enough to raise doubts about the Rio games, but taken together, many people are openly expecting a disaster. Many athletes are considering skipping the games completely.
This week, CNN reported on the efforts of a German sailing team currently training in the waters off Rio in an attempt to get a competitive edge when the games start. They report trash everywhere.
“It’s possible you hit while sailing some plastic or you don’t know what,” said Victoria Jurczok, a 26-year old from Berlin. “It can either damage the boat or slow you down.”
Even worse, Jurczok told CNN one of her teammates was forced to undergo emergency surgery after a race in Rio last year after a minor cut on his leg became horribly infected. Because of the trash, algae blooms, and massive quantities of raw sewage, health experts and media outlets have confirmed there are insane amounts of both bacteria and viruses in the waters of Guanabara Bay.
And while China invested huge resources into clearing up air pollution before the Beijing games, Brazil is fast running out of time and money. In the United States, it costs $30 per ton to recycle waste and $50 per ton to take trash to a landfill, but cleaning up trash and pollution from water is far more complicated and expensive.
While Brazilian officials have tried to project confidence, like celebrating the opening of new sewage treatment plants, local residents paint a different picture.
Fisherman Filipe Fernandes spoke to CNN after a plastic bag stalled the motor on his vessel.
“It’s impossible to swim here,” Fernandes said. “You’ll get all sorts of sicknesses. Skin diseases. Hepatitis. And of course you can’t fish here.”