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Rio de Janeiro will not keep its promise of cleaning polluted Guanabara Bay for the 2016 Olympics, Mayor Eduardo Paes said on Saturday.
Cleaning the giant bay was part of the pitch Rio made in being awarded the games, saying this would form an important part of its legacy.
Olympic sailors have described the 2016 venue as a “sewer” with almost 70 percent of sewage going untreated into area waters. Sailors have talked of dodging floating sofas, animal carcasses, and plastic trash bags that foul rudders.
“I’m sorry that we did not use the games to get Guanabara Bay completely clean,” Paes said in his first public admission that the problem will not be solved.
Rio’s Olympics have faced mounting criticism over delays, with International Olympic Committee members saying openly the games are at risk and preparations are the “worst” in recent memory. In April the IOC sent special advisers to Rio to help organizers get on track.
Any hope Brazil would be able to clean up the sewage-filled bay was quashed in a document obtained last month by The Associated Press.
In a May 7 letter to sports minister Aldo Rebelo, Rio’s state environment secretary, Carlos Francisco Portinho, acknowledged in a best-case scenario that pollution flowing into the bay could be cut to “over 50 percent” — well below the promised reduction of 80 percent.
Paes said he was “not afraid for the health of any of the athletes. It’s going to be fine.”
He said sailing would take place in a part of the bay that was less polluted.
Some parts are worse than others, but water movements and tides make it difficult to predict the trajectory of human waste and floating debris. The medal races for the Olympics are planned off Flamengo beach, where warnings are posted telling people not to swim. The few swimmers there appear to be children from neighboring slums.
Asked if the government would be morally or legally responsible for any athletes who became ill, he replied: “Sure, I think it’s our responsibility. Yes.”
Venues for rowing and distance swimming also face questions over water quality. And the world governing body for sailing, the ISAF, has said it may test water quality to protect athletes.
That could come as soon as a test event that opens on Aug. 2, the first test of any kind for Rio.
Paes argued on Saturday that the beleaguered games were on time and spending was moderate. He ran off a progress report on venues and projected estimated spending, which is about $17 billion in a mix of public and private money. He suggested the figure might rise by 10-20 percent.
He said Rio could leave a legacy comparable to the 1992 Barcelona Games, which are viewed as the best at improving urban development. Many doubt the claim, citing Barcelona as a unique situation in a country that receives about 60 million foreign tourists annually. Brazil gets about 6 million, fewer than Orlando Disney World.
The main infrastructure improvements for the games are a subway line extension, the redevelopment of an old port, and a high-speed bus system linking the international airport to the Olympics in an area in west Rio known as Barra. Several other lines are also planned.
The mayor said the delayed World Cup may have sown mistrust in Rio’s preparations. It has also made Brazilians skittish about public spending on mega sports events. Spending on the World Cup is about $11.5 billion, which includes about $4 billion on 12 new or renovated football stadiums.
“I know that we don’t have a good example during the World Cup,” Paes said. “People are not going to believe in everything we say. … I think we have a problem with mistrust. This is a problem that we face from our history. There is a lot of mistrust in our capability of delivering things.”