The Irony of Pollution in Rio: What is the Cost to the athletes?

Infographic by Clare Ni Mhurchu
Infographic by Clare Ni Mhurchu

In our recent paper in Frontiers in Psychology [i] our research team use a transdisciplinary perspective, with researchers from psychology, physiology and environmental science, highlighting the environmental impact on well-being and performance for elite athletes during Olympic competition[ii]. We also address the potential benefits that can be gained from utilizing and improving the natural environment in host cities. In this summary, we review some of the possible implications for competitors at Rio 2016, and focus on those most at risk from the environmental hazards. The specific impact on podium performance is assessed and furthermore, the long term impact for Rio’s residents is also evaluated. Firstly, the paradox of environmental change in Rio de Janeiro is discussed.

What lies in the Shadow of the Mountain?

The topography of Rio provides a magnificent backdrop to the Olympic venues and combined with the tropical savanna climate it appears to be an ideal blend of nature and urban sprawl. In the foreground however are the favelas, the crime and perhaps of most concern are the persistent environmental threats to the health and well-being to the inhabitants. The paradox is that the city has hosted the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, had targeted for grand plans for the clean-up   (e.g., Clean Urban Delta Initiative[iii]) and gave prominence to the principle of environmental sustainability in the opening ceremony is still mired in debate over the environmental threat to athletes, tourists and the local inhabitants.

What is the Nature of the Threat?

The reality of the source of the pollution[iv] has been well documented and the risks from the water pollution.[v] The consequences for performance for any athletes who have to consider the environmental hazards are manifold. Firstly, the pollution and consequent health risks issues create environmental stress, which added to the competitive stress of this quadrennial event and the organizational stress (exacerbated for Multi-sport events like Olympics and Commonwealth Games), may overload the emotional regulation abilities of athletes and their entourage. For the individual or team, performance variability is a probable outcome of the additional stress the environmental hazards will create. In extreme cases this will lead to choking, a dramatic drop in performance as competitive pressure increases and additionally, it will increase fatigue for athletes, which may be challenging for those competing over several days (e.g., sailing) as we will discuss later.

Can we Dodge the Hazards?

Mitigating measures have been taken to protect competitors at the Deodoro Whitewater stadium, for canoeists who typically expect to be immersed or occasionally capsize during their event. The artificial course uses recirculating water which is treated by sand filtration, ultraviolet light and chlorine[vi] is added dependent upon water quality. These methods help meet the WHO water quality standards and were deemed necessary in part because of issues at other whitewater stadia. A recent fatality at the US National Whitewater Center[vii] in Charlotte, NC was linked to a brain eating amoeba and insufficient treatment of the heavily silted water at that site. The slalom heats which commence today in Rio certainly don’t pose particular risks to the paddlers and they can truly aim to be “fast and clean” as they negotiate the 24 slalom gates on the class IV whitewater course.

So Who is at Risk in Rio?

Sailing and windsurfing events held in Guanabara Bay, and both rowing and flatwater canoe-kayak racing in Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas all expose competitors to significant risk. The probability of illness will be higher among the sailors because of their multi-leg race format.  Normally rowers at this level of competition would not be expected to capsize but yesterday the Men’s Coxless Pair from Serbia capsized in what have been described as ferocious conditions. However a representative of the sports governing body FISU [viii]stated that “It’s swimming quality. It’s really good. Some might say there are viruses there, but it’s amazingly good right now.” Swimming quality isn’t a term that specifies any standard of water quality other than to say you would want to swim as fast as you can to get out of the lake. At most risk of all the racers are those in the swimming leg of the triathlon and the marathon swimming events, held at Copacabana. Given that the swim is the first stage of the triathlon it may even have immediate consequences for performance rather than subsequent illness.

Weather or not it will Prevail?

In our article we also highlight the rarely mentioned air pollution hazard in Rio.[ix] In Beijing the air quality issue was managed by local initiatives including reducing traffic (odd and even car number plates were only permitted to travel on alternating days) and the risks were reduced because of the prevailing weather conditions at that time[x]. Similarly, meteorological conditions (e.g., wind) may reduce the challenge of air pollution during the games but nevertheless it remains a public health issue in the long term with levels well in excess of EU limits across many sites[xi]. Only one section of the marathon (i.e., 12.5k of 42K) and walking events occurs in the most heavily polluted urban area so the threat is significant but the exposure and probability are low. However, other weather factors may increase the risk for those in the aforementioned water sports. Rainfall which is forecast next week may cause runoff of sewage and other detritus leading to an increase in pathogenic micro-organisms. To date the dry and windy conditions that have prevailed may have ameliorated the risks to athletes, spectators and the residents.

It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint?

Those for whom the risk is greatest are the Cariocas, the local inhabitants for whom this megacity, from the communities in the favelas to the suburbs of Ipanema, is home. Rio 2016 was a missed opportunity in terms of cleaning up Guanabara bay and the agreements with the IOC in 2009 dissolved rapidly in the intervening years. Implementation of the mitigating measures to reduce water pollution is priority for this city. Similarly, there is an urgent need the need for continued measures to reduce air pollution because of the strong links between the presence of particulate matter (e.g., PM10) and health issues.

Where do we go from Here?

Tokyo 2020, we argue[xii] offers a unique opportunity for the Olympic movement. Firstly, the IOC should provide more weight to the environmental ethos of hosting cities when making their selections and by doing so promote athlete health and well-being as a priority in the path to success. We propose a reframing of the environment in the Olympic context, a perspective that goes beyond toxicity, and instead accounts for the positive effect of the environment on health, well-being, and athletic performance. That would be a win-win for all concerned.













%d bloggers like this: