Lynne Cox, Famed Open Water Swimmer, Authors Opinion Piece In NY Times Regarding Rio Waters

Photo Courtesy: Lynne Cox


Editorial Coverage Sponsored By FINIS

With fewer than 100 days left until the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro there is still growing concern regarding the open water races to be held in Guanabara Bay and off of nearby Copacabana Beach.

Lynne Cox, famed open-water swimmer, became the most recent individual to wave a red flag at the conditions today by authoring an opinion piece for the New York Times titled  “Olympians Shouldn’t Swim Through Sewage.”  Cox draws in research and reports from virologist DrFernando Rosado Spilki and expert in risk management for waterborne viruses Kristina Mena, whose findings paint a dim picture for those hoping to participate in the open water competition.

After Dr. Spilki was commissioned by The Associated Press to test the water conditions at all of the competition sites, Mena was asked to examine his results. She predicted that it would only take three teaspoons of water from the bay for the athletes to have a 99% chance of infection.

In addition to the research that has already been done regarding the water in Guanabara Bay and off the beaches of Copacabana Beach, Cox draws from her own personal experiences as an open water swimmer. Cox eloquently notes that,

The Only times I failed was when I became gravely ill during a race in the Nile River. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was already sick with dysentery from training in the polluted water. Swimming through sewage, rotting rats and dead dogs, I struggled to finish the race. I didn’t want to stop because I was representing the United States, but after 15 miles, I nearly passed out. In the emergency room I was told I was extremely dehydrated and that I could have died.

After being awarded the Games in 2009 the Brazilian National Olympic Committee announced that they would install eight water treatment plants in an effort to clean up the water, however only one has been installed. Add to that the fact that Brazil’s chief of security for this summer’s Olympic Games and the sports minister have both recently resigned, and the president, Dilma Rousseff, is facing impeachment after a corruption inquiry and it is clear that the country will not be able to deliver on their promise of a “Green Games for a Blue Planet.”

Cox continues by urging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the open water events to cleaner waters, even if it means a binational Olympics, mentioning that moving them would make for a better solution than cancelling the races altogether.

The piece ends with a powerful statement from Cox, stating

They [the Olympic athletes] deserve a chance to compete where the water won’t hurt them.

Since February 2014, Swimming World has been following and covering the issues surrounding the open water venues for the 2016 Summer Olympics being held in Rio De Janeiro.


  1. avatar

    The media – and Lynne Cox – continues to confuse the waters of Guanabara Bay and Copacabana Beach. The Olympic 10K Marathon Swim will be held in Copacabana Beach – not the far-away Guanabara Bay. ESPN’s Bonnie Ford is a reporter who went down to Brazil to closely examine and report on the situation and interview swimmers who have swum there including several Olympic 10K finalists. I have also personally swum in the waters of Copacabana Beach several times over the past 6 years and have never once gotten sick or even had any kind of minor skin irritation. If Dr. Fernando Rosado Spilki and Kristina Mena are correct in their assumptions and assertions, then the Olympians, thousands of (foreign) visitors to Copacabana Beach, and myself should have gotten sick or at least had some minor reaction.

  2. avatar
    Lynne Cox

    Mr Munatones:

    I am not confused. Your information is incorrect. Drs. Spilki and Mena are experts in water quality. They tested the water in Guanabara Bay and along Copacabana Beach with frightening results. The sewage and trash from the 12 million residents of Rio de Janeiro flows directly in to the Bay and that water flows to the exit of the Bay and to Copacabana Beach. The tests found water contaminated with viruses and bacteria at alarming levels in all locations – and as far as 12 miles offshore.

    Furthermore, you are incorrect in describing the distance from Guanabara Bay to Copacabana Beach. The Beach lies at the exit from the Bay and is, in fact, contiguous to the City of Rio de Janeiro – and the issue is water flow not distance. Looking at a map, it is easy to see that Copacabana Beach is in the City of Rio de Janeiro and the contaminated water flows directly from the Bay to Copacabana Beach.

    I have friends who wisely refused to swim in these waters – and I know others who have fallen ill after doing so.

    The most important issue is the health and safety of the athletes and there is no question they will be swimming through sewage. No athlete should have to do that. It is also important to note the fact that the Brazilians have failed to meet any of their obligations to clean up the water in the Olympic venues. I urge you to join in the voices calling for the IOC and the Brazilians to be accountable and to move the events to a clean and safe place for the athletes to compete, and to set and maintain the highest water-quality standards for Olympic competition now and in the future.

  3. avatar
    Virginia Coach

    Steve Munatones is an admired voice regarding open water swimming, but I side with Lynne on this one. Nobody wins if the long distance swimming venue in Rio isn’t moved.

    She knows dirty water when she swims it. Her epic swim in Berlin’s Spee River, in the name of Peace, was done in sewage, water and feces.

  4. avatar

    Millions of people swim on the Copacabana beach every MON without reports of 99% of incidence of infection. In the past 15 years, many international meets have taken place in the same water, including the Pan Am games, with no reporting of damages. I have same personally 7 times in the Copacabana Beach, 2 to 3 miles each time with no sign whatsoever of any infection. Guanabara bay inner beaches have been officially polluted for years, with Copabana being the”first clean’ beach in terms of proximity to be clean. My open waters swim team based in NYC has got many people infected from swimming in the in NYC… I am sure the experts know, but things are getting confused and mixed up, and almost purposely it may seem.

  5. avatar

    Maybe Steve & Bonnie can film themselves swimming in the Olympic venue to prove how pure the water is? A fresh dip in the tangy waters and a 24 hour incubation period should prove who’s right!

    • avatar

      I have swum in Copacabana Beach in the Olympic course each year several times over the past 6 years. I have experienced no skin irritation, no illness and I have swum the course with Keri-Anne Payne, Ashley Twichell, Alex Meyer, Aaron Piersol and many other experienced open water swimmers from the USA, UK, Canada, Japan, Israel, Germany, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, and Mexico who have similarly experienced no ill effects after swimming up to 10 km and training for hours. Although I did not film myself in the water, I have photos of other swimmers and race results that document our immersion in the water. If the water is as dirty as is alleged, there should have been SOME ill effects after these dozens of immersions over these years. It pains me to differ in opinion with Lynne because I admire her so much, but the assumptions and statements being made are clearly inconsistent with what I have personally observed and repeatedly experienced over the years in Copacabana Beach. But my opinion and experiences are immaterial because IF the water is as dirty as alleged, then a vast majority of the swimmers and triathletes will become sick at the Olympics and everyone involved will be embarrassed in one of the world’s most iconic beaches. Time will tell as there is no backup plan by the IOC or FINA. There is no Plan B or alternative location for the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim. If the water is that bad, then the national governing bodies can place pressure on the IOC to change. If the IOC is willing to change the normal starting times of the pool swimming events to accommodate the American television audiences, then it should be willing to change the location elsewhere if athletes lives and health are at stake.

  6. avatar

    Rather than hear from those that claim not to have gotten ill from swimming in the waters in question, I would like to hear from those that have gotten sick. I believe there were some rowers that became ill from incidental contact with waters in Rio.

    • avatar

      Herman, research Chip Patterson and Kalyn Keller and the 2007 Pan-Am games.

  7. avatar

    He said, She said. ?

    Steve, anecdotal evidence supporting his opinion.

    Lynne, weight of water quality experts’ warnings.

    I’d also like to see, and it certainly should be supported by all the governing bodies (for the welfare of the Olympians is above all else!) research/investigation done to discover exactly who and how many people have been effected/infected from swimming, etc. in this water.

    For even one case is too many and therefore unjustifiable and unethical to put these athletes at risk!

    Major modern facilities are built for most or many of the other sport venues. So, to not have the same secure and worthy venue for this would be shameful and inexcusable.

  8. avatar

    My friend Kalyn Robinson (nee Keller) got a life-long sickness from swimming in Rio waters in the Pan Am games nine years ago. She was Beijing bound then and as a result of the illness had to stop competitive open water swimming. Sure this is anecdotal, except that she does have the medical problem linked to swimming in dirty water.

    • avatar

      and mike drop!

  9. avatar
    Rob Davis

    Conflicting opinions on this matter from two different bases 1) research by Dr. Spilki, and 2) anecdotal evidence from very a respected authority in OWS (and an accomplished OWS swimmer too). I would suggest that if the findings by Dr. Spilki were replicated by additional independent researchers, then the scientific findings would be increasingly difficult to refute.

    • avatar

      Agreed. I contend that Copacabana Beach is swimmable and not dangerous based on personal experiences and observations of thousands of swimmers participating in the King and Queen of the Sea events and other races in Rio de Janeiro over the last six years.

      This does not mean the water in Copacabana is as clean as some beaches in the state of California. If the scientists’ data is reproducible and the venue is as potentially dangerous as described, then I agree that it is the moral responsibility for the IOC, FINA and each national governing body and each national Olympic Committee with marathon swimmers to come together and change the venue. Not only is a change of venue the right and moral decision to make, but the IOC and FINA can easily avoid a PR disaster and liability if the 50 swimmers (and the Olympic triathletes) get sick and infected and perhaps have a lifelong disease as a result of swimming in Copacabana.

      There are other iconic beaches in Brazil where the marathon swim can be held and we can all cheer on and admire the talents and tenacity of the Olympic marathon swimmers who are incredible individuals.

      Note: I have swum in both Copacabana Beach and Odaiba which is the marathon swimming venue in Tokyo Bay for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I enjoy swimming in Copacabana; but I am frightened to swim in Tokyo Bay. Locals swim in Copacabana Beach every day of the year; not Odaiba! So this issue will be repeated 4 years from now

    • avatar

      Already two rounds of testing by two different scientists hired by the AP has come up with disastrous results. It’s fewer than 100 days. How many more scientists and tests do you want before our athletes get in (or on) the water?

      • avatar

        FYI – Chip Peterson (mentioned above by IronMike) voluntarily returned at least twice to Rio de Janeiro to compete in international races in Copacabana Beach, the latest in 2014 and 2015. Each time he performed extremely well; the latest time, he was interviewed by ESPN as to why he returned to Copacabana Beach.

  10. avatar

    Brazil hasn’t filled the obligations they agreed to in being awarded the opportunity to host the Olympics. When they were vying to host them, Brazil’s economy was good – they heyday of the “BRICs”and the media bought into the branding of Brazil’s miracle.
    Now the economy has tanked, the country is in political turmoil, and as Lynne Cox points one, one consequence is the 10K event site is still filthy, and will not be cleaned.

    Put the 10KM swim in Lake Michigan….or anywhere that offers safe and disease-free venue.

    What a disgrace that athletes are left with a choice to skip the Olympics or put their health at risk.

  11. avatar

    I lived in Brazil for 10 years, if you go down the Copacabana sea front early in the morning, you see them scooping the scum off the water before the sun bathers arrive.

  12. avatar

    As a relative new comer to the vast field of open water swimming, I have made it a point to never or almost never swim in waters where I would first have to get a vaccinated. I live in the US on the east coast where there are so many open water swims offered. However, due to the questionable levels of bacteria and my own desire to never swim in such polluted waters, I skip the local events and head to where ever the blue clean waters are.

    I urge the IOC, FINA and all the Olympic athletes to petition for the clean, clear, blue waters. There are lots of “clean almost pristine waters” around the world. I was just in the Caribbean swimming from island to island and the waters were gorgeous, clear, even distractingly so. As I could watch turtles, small sharks, tarpon, barracuda and schools of reef fish. I swam off the coast of The Masca Gorge north of Los Gigantes in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. The waters were the near pristine powerful Atlantic Ocean. I also kayaked in a challenging location from Mallorca to Sa Dragonera where the channel was clean but currents evident. On a good day to swim along the northern coast of the island of Mallorca would be fantastic. A 10k swim could easily be done on this coast with the open water swimmers. But accessibility for spectators may be a problem. However the beaches in New Zealand are so big, wide and vast. I wish the directors ,the leaders and the athletes much success in finding an appropriate solution.

    This should be a wake up call to the governments of each nation in the world, that the water pollution problem really does need a long term dedicated solution in order to be resolved. With constant consumerism going on , year after year, the situation is only getting worse. Pretty soon, the near pristine areas will be infiltrated by the polluted flow going around the world. As all waters are connected, each nation needs to clean up its own shores. A true plan of action needs to be instituted.
    This water pollution problem should be addressed in the presidential elections. This problem needs to be first and foremost not just for the pressing need of the Olympics, but also because livelihoods depend on the cleanliness of the seas, coastal population health depends on the cleanliness of the seas, coastal tourism in every nation depends on the cleanliness of the seas.

    I think I can speak for open water swimmers when I say that its amazing to swim in crystal clear waters! We need to bring our oceans, bays, seas, rivers, lakes to a state of purity that they existed perhaps 200-500 years ago when oceans were teeming with marine life and water quality was not an issue. The big question is HOW? How can we do it? And the next big issues are TEAMWORK AND TRUE MOTIVATION TO GET THE JOB DONE!! It is a crying shame that Brazil has not taken this initiative when they have the opportunity to lead the world in the right course of action. It is important that Japan recognize their opportunity and seize upon it to clean up Tokyo Bay! We must not let politics, greed, apathy of those in government rule when it comes to the ocean welfare. There are people who are already working to effect changes. But the work is clearly so vast, as vast as the seas themselves. With sea levels rising, more pollution will flow all around the globe. Action Needs To Be Taken Now!
    Have a safe and healthy Olympics 2016 and 2020 !