The sailing regatta at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics will be both filthy and photogenic.
The troubled waters of Guanabara Bay have made news for the wrong reasons, with an independent study by The Associated Press showing high levels of viruses and sometimes bacteria from human sewage. There have also been unsightly buildups of trash.
Sailors have tried to downplay the effects of sailing on the dirty water, saying they’re taking precautions and that Rio isn’t the only place on the planet with polluted waterways.
Still, German sailor Erik Heil was hospitalized in Berlin and underwent surgery to treat inflammation and skin infections after competing in a test event in August.
One big improvement so far is at the venue, the new Marina da Gloria, where the water is clearer just months after a new sewage system was installed to stop brown, untreated sludge from being poured into the small harbor.
Dirty water aside, sailors rave about Rio as a good place to sail, both on the bay and on ocean courses.
This will be one of the rare times sailors have competed in the center of the Olympic action. The Christ the Redeemer statue and Rio’s round natural features will provide a stunning backdrop. The medals races will be sailed off Flamengo Beach, with the windward mark right under Sugarloaf Mountain.
Here are some things to watch for in the Olympic sailing regatta:
IT’S THE WATER: Some sailors will end up in the water, particularly in the wild 49er class, which is prone to capsizing. “You don’t want to ingest the water,” said New Zealand 49er skipper Peter Burling. “It’s not that different to what China was eight years ago. Obviously we’ve taken precautions with all the immunizations. You try to stay out of the water.” U.S. sailor Paige Railey of Clearwater, Florida, has made several trips to Rio. She said she’s even gone wakeboarding and swimming there, and has eaten fish from the bay. “I don’t have any fear about the water at all, actually,” she said.
ANY MEDAL WILL DO: At the 2012 London Games, the United States failed to win a sailing medal for the first time since 1936. America’s best medals bets for Rio are Annie Haeger of East Troy, Wisconsin, and Briana Provancha of San Diego in the women’s 470; Stu McNay of Providence, Rhode Island, and Dave Hughes of Miami in the men’s 470; and Railey in the Laser Radial. Haeger and Provancha won the gold at the Olympic test event in Rio in August. McNay and Hughes won the gold at the 2015 European Championships. Railey won the gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games. The United States leads the overall medals table with 59, although Britain has 25 golds to the Americans’ 19.
THE STREAK: New Zealanders Burling and Blair Tuke have sailed undefeated through 26 regattas in the 49er class during the last four years, including four straight world championships, to become the odds-on favorites to upgrade the silver medal they won in London. “It’s not about the winning streak,” Burling said. “We’re not too worried about that. The last four years have been about trying to get a gold medal for New Zealand in Rio.”
THE HEIR APPARENT? The big story in the London Games was British hero Ben Ainslie rallying in the Finn class to win his fourth straight gold medal and fifth Olympic medal overall, making him the most-decorated sailor in games history. With Ainslie having moved on to the America’s Cup, countryman Giles Scott is the man to beat in the Finn, the heavyweight, single-handed dinghy class. Scott has 16 wins in 18 regattas this quadrennial, with two silvers.
GOING AND COMING: The venerable Star class was dropped from the Olympic lineup for the first time since 1932. That didn’t sit well with Brazilians. Torben Grael won two gold medals and two bronze medals in the Star class, and countryman Robert Scheidt won a silver and a bronze. Grael’s daughter, Martine, will sail in the women’s 49er FX class, which has been added to the Olympic lineup, along with the Nacra 17 multihull. Grael’s son, Marco, will compete in the 49er class. Scheidt will sail in his sixth Olympics, in the Laser class.
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