13 U.S. Rowers Fall Ill Post-Rio Test Event, Possibly Due to Pollution

Retta Race
by Retta Race 17

August 10th, 2015 News

There is more negative news being reported surrounding the ongoing issue of water pollution at 2016 Rio Olympic Games venues.

We previously reported how grave concerns were being voiced even back in March of this year, as Rio’s Guanabara Bay specifically was visibly plagued by millions of dead fish, sewage and bacteria, despite Rio organizers having committed during their Games bid to reduce the pollution by 80 percent by January of this year.  The Washington Post later revealed the Brazilian government backed off that commitment, saying “efforts were being hampered by a lack of available boats to do the job” due to contract delays as well as delays in “dealing with the graver longer term issue of sewage build-up.”

Flash forward to earlier this month, when the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) began collecting data on water pollution after the Associated Press deemed all water venues for the Games were unsafe for swimming.  In their tests, the AP found that were “dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage in the Olympic and Paralympic venues.”  Despite this, Rio State Government officials have insisted that these issues in Guanabara Bay will cause no problems at the 2016 Olympics.

Reports are now coming out that the U.S. women’s rowing team has had several members fall ill since participating in a recent test event in Rio at Rodrigo de Freitas Lake.  Thirteen rowers have been stricken with various gastrointestinal symptoms at the World Junior Rowing Championships and the team doctor said it is her “personal feeling it is due to the lake.”

U.S. Rowing medical staff is not the only group to suspect a link between polluted waters in Rio and resulting athlete sickness.  Recently, Michael Phelps’ longtime coach Bob Bowman also expressed his concern in the water quality of open water swimming in Rio. Bowman described his personal connection to the issue stating,  “I happened to coach a young lady at the 2007 Pan Am Games there, and she came back and has been sick the rest of her life with a life-altering illness.”

Bowman was referring to 2007 Pan American Games 10k fourth place finisher Kalyn Keller, who was later diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, resulting in her early retirement in 2008.  Chip Peterson, who also swam in the men’s version of the race that same year has encountered ongoing health problems, including ulcerative colitis.  From these experiences alone, Bowman said, “So I know first-hand that it’s serious. They’ve got to do something about it.”

US Rowing said it is investigating the cause of the athletes’ sickness, including looking not only at pollution as the culprit, but also looking at water bottles used in the boats or hygiene precautions that some athletes undertook that others didn’t.

Head of World Rowing, Matt Smith, said he wants the IOC to ask Rio de Janeiro to perform viral testing in the remaining months leading up to the Olympics.  However, according to the Chicago Tribune, the Rio state environment agency does not have the equipment or the trained personnel to carry out viral testing of water.  “The agency confirmed it only does bacterial testing, since that is all Brazilian law, like that of most nations including the U.S., demands.”

As such, if Rio state officials decline to conduct testing, Smith said the rowing, sailing, swimming, canoeing and triathlon federations may unite to possibly finance their own testing of the venues.


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5 years ago

Even if Brazil had the available personnel/equipment to get this job done, is there even enough time at this point? We’re talking about a massive quantity of extremely dirty water. That’s not a rhetorical question, either. I have no particular knowledge about the logistics and timeframes involved. It just seems to me that that’s not something that gets fixed in a year. A year also wouldn’t allow a foreign athlete get in quality training while dealing with the sickness required to build up an immunity.

Hopefully there is someone in a position to help that actually has these athletes’ best interests in mind. My suggestion is that the open water/rowing/triathlon events be outsourced to somewhere in Brazil with cleaner water.

Coach Mike 1952
Reply to  sven
5 years ago

I agree wholeheartedly with all comments about Rio not being ready in time for these events. Bowman’s story is particularly important & mine is similar, though not as serious. I swam the last Quincy (Illinois) YMCA 10-Mile Mississippi River Marathon in 1970 & got sick with pleurisy from the pollution. It took quite some time to heal. I believe IOC should pressurize BOC to move the venues away from these existing venues; otherwise the events will simply be unsafe. They cannot allow such risk to athletes because “they can’t do it”. Unacceptable in this day & age. They knew of the problem before their IOC bid.

Reply to  Coach Mike 1952
5 years ago

The IOC will never force Brazil to move the venues to safer / cleaner locations, because they will never admit that it was a mistake to award the games to Rio in the first place.

Reply to  Coach Mike 1952
5 years ago

I don’t think the IOC will force Brazil to change the some of the water related venues, because they don’t want to be reminded of their mistake in awarding the games to Brazil. I would hope that the venues would be changed, and if I was a betting gal, I wouldn’t wager against Gina’s $5.00 bet.

Gina, is that $5.00 US or AUS?

5 years ago

My advice is – do not have a Brazilian if you have entered these events . If you fall in , you need all the protection nature can muster.

Gina Rhinestone
Reply to  GinaRhinestone
5 years ago

Not a joke – plus custom orifice plugs . no waxing or shaving as this strips a layer of skin & exposes blood pathways through follicles. I learnt this from search & rescue .

I can definitely believe the link with Crohns .

5 years ago

It won’t be fixed. I remember that officials said it’s not possible in the timeframe given to them so they gave up trying.

For example:


I don’t know what are the plans for open water swimming at the moment.

About Retta Race

Retta Race

After 16 years at a Fortune 1000 financial company, long-time swimmer Retta Race decided to change lanes and pursue her sporting passion. She currently is Coach for the Northern KY Swordfish Masters, a team she started up in December 2013, while also offering private coaching. Retta is also an MBA …

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