Sailing: Athletes fed up with Rio water-quality complaints

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Despite reports of dangerous levels of pollution in Rio’s Guanabara Bay and concerns that floating garbage could damage or slow competitors’ boats, sailors at the 2016 Olympics are showing little or no fear of getting into the water.

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After the first day of racing in the Olympic Regatta on Monday athletes drenched and dripping after hours of racing scoffed at questions about their safety and risks to their health from studies showing high levels of bacteria and viruses.

Many said the dangers of sailing in Rio have been overblown and worried that the water concerns are overshadowing some of the most exciting and challenging sailing of their lives. Worse, they fear it could undermine one of the best chances ever to expand interest in a sport that demands both physical prowess and keen intelligence.

“People exaggerate about this, obviously it isn’t great, but it’s not bad either,” Tom Burton, Australia’s entry in the men’s one-person Laser dinghy class. “I didn’t see any tide lines with garbage on it. The water is fine, I’ve been here a long time and it’s fine.”

In the weeks before the regatta, similar feelings were expressed by Erik Heil, skipper of Germany’s Olympic entry into the 49er two-man skiff class.

Heil made headlines after being treated in Germany for an antibiotic-resistant, flesh-eating Staphylococcus infection that chewed small craters into his leg after a test regatta in Rio last year. He said there was really no way of knowing where he got the infection which exists naturally on many people’s bodies.

Brazilian sailors, many of whom grew up on the bay, know of the problems and feel critics are being overly squeamish.

The highly ranked British, German and Croatian sailing teams have said they are taking precautions, such as hepatitis vaccines, showering off after races, protecting water bottles in Ziploc bags and using mouthwash if they get lots of water in their mouths.

But they also add that these are the same precautions they take in many other sailing venues. Australia’s rowing team, competing on Rio’s Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon - also criticized for pollution - have said much the same, adding that they face similar risks training at home and in Europe.

“I’ve sailed in worse conditions and think the water pollution situation is exaggerated,” said Andrew Lewis, Trinidad & Tobago’s entry in the men’s Laser.

“This is my fifth time back to Rio, and I’ve never gotten sick and never got any infection,” he said. “It’s time for all this complaining to stop.”

Reporting by Jeb Blount; Editing by Bill Rigby