By Elias Weiss.

Time to dust up that good ‘ol (reluctant and tempered) patriotism of ours: the Rio Olympics are finally upon us. The Olympics are a celebration of human athletic prowess, an occasion for nations to come together in a spirit of peace and unity.

For the next sixteen days, we’ll play witness to the thrills and tribulations of the best athletes in the world who will showcase their passion, dedication and hard work.

But things are far from being all rainbows and butterflies over there in Rio. Sure, it seems to be a long standing tradition for journalists and sport pundits to have a little panic attack before every Olympics. “Athens in race against time” headlined CNN back in 2004, “Beijing’s Olympic War on Smog” titled the TIME in 2008 and who can forget the slight national freakout we had over the lack of snow right before the Vancouver Winter Olympics? We ended up airlifting some good quality white powder and cannon shot ice and water onto the slopes, because of course, what else? Yet, everything ended up being fine. No event is perfect, of course. Athens lacked spectators, Beijing had the little singing incident and Vancouver, well, Vancouver was pretty flawless if I can say so myself.

But the freakout surrounding the Rio Olympics has been, shall we say, slightly more warranted. Indeed, the Twelve Olympians seem to be playing a rather cruel joke on Rio….

The country is not only dealing with the rite of passage of all Olympic hosts: construction delays, but they’re also facing a Zika epidemic, fiscal and health systems emergencies, social tensions, an impeached president and dramatic corruption allegations in one of the consortium of companies building one of the main Olympic centers. The latter were raided by Brazilian Federal Police earlier in June and are suspected of fraud. Classic.

The hits just kept coming, however, with reports of the worrying state of two Olympic water venues. In three words: raw. human. sewage.

According to a report commissioned by the Associated Press, Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, that will be used for the rowing competition, and Gloria Marina, which will be used for the sailing race, are contaminated with raw human sewage. Again, according to that same study performed by the molecular microbiology lab at Feevale University in southern Brazil, ingesting through the nose or mouth approximately three teaspoons of water would almost guarantee an illness which can range from the typical stomach bug to the more serious (and rare) heart and brain inflammation.

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Contamination in Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janerio. (Photo: Mario Tama, Getty.)

The athletes set to compete in these waters are taking precautions such as taking preventive antibiotics (effective against bacterias, but useless against viruses) and will wear protective plastic suits. Rowers are even bleaching their oars. Sexy.

Then there’s the story of the ill-starred Australian team who had – err – a few problems with their accommodation in the Olympic Village. Near the end of June, Aussie officials refused to move in until improvements were made to their building. There were concerns over blocked toilets, exposed wiring and leaking pipes according to the head of the Australian delegation, Kitty Chiller. Extra maintenance staff as well as extra cleaners were brought in by Rio Olympics officials to fix the problems.

In a happier note, things seemed to be heading in the right direction, so much so even, the Ms. Chiller offered a toy kangaroo as a peace offering to Rio’s mayor. That said, the truce only lasted for a few days as the Australian team had to evacuate from its 18 storey building due to a fire started in the garbage room by a worker who negligently threw a cigarette in the recycling bin. To make matters worse, the fire alarm had been deactivated. Oh, and some laptops were stolen. So much for the Lucky Country.

Australia’s misfortune is relatively minor, however, compared to the dire economic situation Brazil is facing. The state of Rio de Janeiro has been forced to slash $400M from its budget, weakening public services, especially the police and public hospitals. The state is barely able to pay public servants’ salary, drugs and medical equipments…in the middle of a Zika epidemic. Even Rio 2016 has seen its budget cut, officials have taken “rational and sensible’ spending decisions according to a Rio 2016 spokesperson, which includes temporary structures at certain venues, skipping on luxuries (such as air conditioning in the Olympic Village) and reducing the numbers of volunteers.

Many would ask why on earth did the International Olympic Committee decide to award the 2016 Olympics to Rio in the first place? Truth be told, things looked very different back in 2009 when Brazil won the bid. The economy was growing by a whopping 7.5% and the future was looking bright for this developing country. Sadly, the IOC failed to predict the fall in oil prices (thanks Notley) that turned a booming economy into a contracting one.

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Scenes from the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

At the centre of the Rio Olympics problems isn’t its host, Brazil, however, but rather its governing body, the IOC. The IOC has been experiencing a bit of a rough patch to say the least. Indeed, a massive doping scandal has been plaguing both the committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for a few months now. WADA, which receives half its funding from the IOC, published a now infamous report accusing Russia of covering up positive drug tests in a state-sponsored doping scandal.

Grigory Rodchenkov, who handled the hundreds of drug tests during the Sochi Olympics, shared his story with the NYT back in May of this year.

Many called for the banning of the entire Russian delegation, something the IOC ultimately decided against. IOC President Thomas Bach called a blanket ban of Russia a ‘nuclear option.’ Instead, he’s opted to allow each international sport federation to decide whether or not Russian athletes can take part in the competition.

As of today, 250 Russian athletes have been cleared and Russia will still have one of the largest delegations in Rio. The IOC (Thomas Bach especially) have been accused by many, of cowardice for their ‘weak’ approach to Russia.

One of his fiercest critics is Jack Robertson a former chief investigator of the World Anti Doping Agency who accuses both WADA and the IOC of failing to protect clean sport, preferring to kowtow and appease powerful nations. Both WADA and the IOC are now taking part in a ping pong match worthy of the Olympics, both accusing the other of not acting sooner. In defense of the World Anti-Doping Agency, it’s essentially toothless. Its mission is limited to providing outreach, education, testing and research, it cannot enforce any rules to protect the level playing field so essential to clean sport.

It’s also worth noting that doping is not specifically a Russian problem; take American track and field sprinter Tyson Gay who was stripped of his 2012 silver medal but is still allowed to compete in this year’s Olympics. The peculiarity of the Russian scandal is the scope and the state-sponsored aspect of it. Although it’s not unprecedented either, East Germany also used  these techniques as a propaganda tool.

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More scenes from the opening ceremony: this one representing Brazilian rain forests.

But it would be easy to be left bitter and cynical by the unaccountability, the corruption and apparent selfishness of these big international organizations; the challenge ahead of the world is to not let all the doom and gloom bring our spirit down.

One light at the end of this long, seemingly endless, bureaucratic tunnel is the Refugee Olympic Team.  Bright, hopeful and heartwarming, this team is comprised of ten young refugee athletes coming from South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Congo and Syria. The idea came from the Olympic Committee in an effort to draw attention to the global refugee crisis (according to the UNHCR, “65.3 million people were displaced from their home by conflict and persecution in 2015”).

One of the faces of this first ever Refugee Olympic Team is swimmer Yusra Mardini, 18. This time last year, she and her sister were fleeing their home in Damascus and the ragging Syrian civil war. They made their way through Lebanon all the way to Turkey, and then attempted to cross the Mediterranean sea into Greece in a small dinghy. While at sea, the dinghy’s motor stopped and the boat nearly capsized. She, along with her sister and a fellow passenger, jumped into the water and pushed it to shore, saving not only their lives, but the lives of seventeen other people. Mardini now lives in Germany.

Her and her teammates’ courage, strength and perseverance are the epitome of Olympic values and I for one, will not only be cheering for Team Canada, but will also fly the Olympic flag in celebration of the Refugee Olympic Team Rami Anis, Yiech Pur Biel, James Nyang Chiengjiek, Yonas Kinde, Anjelina Nada Lohalith, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Paulo Amotun Lokoro, Yolande Bukasa Mabika, Popole Misenga and Yusra Mardini. Together, they have a very simple message for all of us about their humanity: refugees are people too. “I want everyone to think that refugees are normal humans,” Mardini says, making only mistake. Olympians, like her, are human, but they are far from ordinary. They’re athletes, they’re heroes and they’re extraordinary – and so is she.

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Elias Weiss 
studies Neuroscience and Biotechnology at McGill University. A liberal and a passionate believer in evidence-based decision-making, Elias hails from British Columbia but is now a proud Montréaler.

Twitter: @eligdeon

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One thought on “Let the games begin (sewage and all)

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