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Paralympic Sailors Compete With Constant Health Fear in Rio Waters

The bad water quality at Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay puts Paralympic sailors in constant fear of their health during competitions with organizers having failed to live up to their promises, Paralympic champion Heiko Kroeger said this week.

The experienced German sailor, who won a gold medal at the Sydney 2000 and silver at the London 2012 Paralympics, said sailors in wheelchairs would be especially vulnerable in the polluted waters during the Sept. 7-18 Paralympics in the Brazilian city.

"Usually when you are sailing you open your mouth and take in some water to refresh yourself," Kroeger told Reuters a day after returning from a competition in Rio.

"But in Rio last week, mouths and noses stayed shut and heads turned away from the spray," he said. "I have been sailing a long time but I have never seen that happening.

"There is a constant fear in our heads, a fear that you could get sick," said Kroeger, who also sailed in the bay back in September. "That of course affects the competition because you know that if you get sick you are out."

When Rio won the right in 2009 to stage the Olympics and Paralympics, the city had promised to cut the amount of raw sewage flowing into the bay by 80 percent but has since confirmed it will not meet that target.

The bay, which will also host the sailing, open water swimming and triathlon races during the Olympics in August, has dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria in the water, independent studies have shown.

Biologists in 2014 said rivers leading into the bay contained a superbacteria that is resistant to antibiotics and can cause urinary, gastrointestinal and pulmonary infections.

The country is also struggling with the spread of the Zika virus, linked with an alarming surge in cases of babies born with abnormally small heads.

"You have to take every single precaution," Kroeger said.

"We will arrive in Rio two weeks before the Paralympics, then there are six days of sailing competitions and we have to stay healthy throughout. This is a very long time."

He said the hot and humid climate was already a drawback for sailors in wheelchairs with the polluted water adding another layer of threat.

"They have many times open wounds because of the wheelchairs and in that water they are far more vulnerable," Kroeger said.

He said the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was also to blame for failing to pressure Rio organisers to deliver Games that would protect the health and safety of the athletes.

"A city was picked to host the Games but their promise has not been kept with the IOC being weak in pushing the organizers to deliver," Kroeger said.
"You would expect the IOC's top priority to be the safety of the athletes."

The IOC has ordered testing for disease-causing viruses after taking advice from the World Health Organization but has said it is confident water quality at the time of the Games will be safe for the athletes.