RIO DE JANEIRO -- Triathletes swam in waters off Copacabana Beach Friday ahead of weekend Olympic test events, despite published warnings that water in the area was "unfit" for swimming.
The website of the Rio de Janeiro environmental agency said the water, which has been declared unfit ten previous times this year, was unsafe based on the results of a Monday water test.
Officials publicly insisted athletes were safe and stuck to the competition schedule. Later in the day, Rodrigo Garcia, the sports director for the local Olympic organizing committee, said that new, unpublished water test results show that the area is suitable for the competition, but provided no details on the results. The Rio environmental agency didn't respond to requests for comment.
The situation prompted new concern about Rio's polluted waters. On Thursday, The Associated Press released the results of a five-month investigation that showed that Olympic venues are rife with disease-causing viruses and bacteria.
The AP study showed that the spot where athletes were entering the water on Copacabana Beach had a minimal reading of over 2 million human adenovirus per liter - that's 2,000 times the reading that water experts in the U.S. say would be considered highly alarming if seen on beaches in the U.S. or Europe. At the high end, Copacabana registered 49 million adenoviruses per liter in the AP study.
Human adenovirus multiply in the intestinal and respiratory tracts of people. These are viruses that are known to cause respiratory and digestive illnesses, including explosive diarrhea and vomiting, but can also lead to more serious heart, brain and other diseases.
More than 150 athletes are competing in an Olympic qualifier and Paratriathlon event beginning Saturday. Teams gathered on Copacabana Beach said the International Triathlon Union (ITU) gave them guarantees the water was safe.
"The information we have is that it's safe to swim," said Amanda Duke, team manager for the U.S. paratriathlon team.
But officials with the group may consider pushing for expanded testing of Rio's waters, said Shin Otsuka, executive board member of ITU. Currently, tests evaluate bacteria, but not viruses.
"The ITU has contracted with the local organizing committee to conduct the water-quality tests, and we trust the results," Shin Otsuka, executive board member of the International Triathlon Union, said through an interpreter. "The outcome of the testing has met the standards."
But "we are aware that at other bays and lakes (in Rio) that the virus situation is terrible," Otsuka said.
Athletes said that the conditions of the water appeared better than they were expecting. But water experts and the government's own pollution monitoring officials all note that sewage pollution typically isn't something that can be seen by the naked eye.
Because conditions of ocean waters tend to be volatile, it is difficult to determine just how much of a risk athletes faced swimming in the water on Friday, said David Zee, an oceanography professor at Rio's state university.
"The fluctuation depends on the tide. Every 12 hours we have a high tide and a low tide. For sure during high tide the water quality is much better than in the low tide," he said. Other factors such as winds, temperature and whether or not it rained recently can also affect water quality.
But "if the test was done and the water was considered unfit, without a doubt there's a certain risk."
The Rio de Janeiro state government and the state environmental agency in press releases blasted the AP report as being alarmist and said it was unfair to judge Rio's waters based on viral counts, limits of which are not designated in Brazilian legislation. They are also not set limits in the U.S. or the EU. The agency also questioned the qualifications of the laboratory where the AP samples were analyzed.
Zee, the oceanography professor, rejected the government's response, saying that in Brazil "it's natural that the authorities react saying that 'everything is fine,' but everything is not fine."
Zee, who has long researched pollution in Guanabara Bay, added that the AP testing "was done in a trustworthy lab."
The area that was ruled unfit by the Rio environmental agency for swimming earlier this week was based levels of fecal coliforms, which are single-celled organisms that live in the intestines of humans and animals. Fecal coliforms can suggest the presence of cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid.
Costa Rican triathlete Leonardo Chacon said he doesn't do anything differently to protect his body before going into the water in Rio, but plans to take anti-parasitic pills after he leaves to make sure he doesn't get sick. Those pills would not protect him against viruses.
With the Olympics a year away, he felt the risk was worth it.
"We know we are exposed to viruses, maybe to health problems later, but in my case, I have invested so much to prepare myself for this and I want this to happen because I can't recuperate this investment any other way other than competing and winning the points that I need to win."
Triathletes shrug off Brazil water warnings, swim in Rio