As is my habit – because I’m a rabid sports fan and listen to sports talk radio for at least part of every day – I clicked on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” today, just like most days. About ten minutes into the program (which I listen to with maybe half a brain, as I’m occupied with making Lunch for The Earth-Shattering Domestic Partner), everyone’s favorite germaphobe, Mike Greenberg, launched into a story about the upcoming 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The first thing that caught my ear was that Greenie’s tone – which usually modulates somewhere between a reedy first tenor and a very melodic dental drill – went up half an octave, a sure sign that he’s about to rant about something. So, I tuned in a little more closely.
And what I heard made me almost physically ill.
Apparently, one of the prerequisites for Rio being awarded the 2016 Games was a promise made to the International Olympic Committee that the local water supply, notorious as one of the most polluted urban water systems on the planet, would be cleaned up and brought in line with even the minimum standards for safe drinking, cooking, bathing, dog-washing, and swimming that every civilized country in the world recognizes as essential to human health.
But, in a statement recently released by the Brazilian government and the Rio mayor’s office, it was revealed that it has been found to be impossible for the water quality to be improved significantly in time for the start of the Games, but with assurances that the water would “not be an issue in conducting the sporting events required for holding a summer Olympics“!?!
As Lewis Black would say, “Bluhuhuhuh, what!?!”
Let’s, just for a moment, slide past the comfortable daily reality of the world’s safest water supply that all us Americans live with and take for granted, day by day. It’s dead-easy to forget that, for vast portions of the world’s population, clean water is something only dreamed about and never, in the entire lifetimes of the citizens of many countries, experienced even once, except in the highly unlikely event that they travel somewhere else that has running water. Imagine what it would be like to live in a place where water was desperately scarce and, even when available, has to be boiled before anything can be safely done with it. Imagine not having the essential tools to boil it and having to just drink it straight out of a dirty, germ-laden hollow in the ground, or simply die of thirst. Would you drink the water? You may say “No!“, now, sitting fourteen feet from your home’s nearest faucet, but if it were a matter of survival or dying a painful, desiccated death…you would drink that nasty, filthy, foul-smelling water.
Getting the picture?
Now consider that, in the case of a city that’s a major tourist destination and which was deemed fiscally sound enough to host an Olympic Games, the polluted water – easily as unsafe as that from the aforementioned hollow in the ground – had gotten that way not because it was physically impossible to clean it up…but because Rio de Janeiro is also one of the most corrupt and divided localities in the world, with a vast and desperately poor underclass, upon which floats a thin stratum of fabulously wealthy fat cats who could, with some significant effort, have managed to at least make an honest effort to address their water problem, but chose not to, hoping, instead, to simply brazen their way through an Olympics which will pump into their coffers the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars that an Olympics brings. Rio’s mayor stated flatly that the water “is not an issue for the games’ aquatic events” and that it would be “perfectly safe” for the competitors.
Greenie was very nearly apoplectic about this and I am right there with him. For me, I cannot help thinking beyond the safety of the athletes, all of whom, even if they don’t compete in aquatic events, will still have to shower and hydrate and get spirtzed during distance running competition and eat food that’s presumably been prepared with water and walk on grass watered with a toxic stew of fecal and coliform bacteria. This is also about the support staffs and management and all the tourists and the thousands of other ways in which humans interact with and are sustained by water. And, even beyond that, if you traveled to Rio for the Games and wanted to sample the local craft breweries (and, yes, they do have craft brewing in Brazil) or try the local distilleries (yep, those, too), would you feel safe in doing it, after reading repeated warnings from the US Olympic Committee about not drinking tap water while in Rio and not swimming at the local beaches? Water is absolutely essential to both brewing and distilling. There may, because of the boiling involved in making spirits, be a slightly reduced risk in drinking the go-to Cachaça, the national distilled liquor of Brazil, derived from sugar cane and water, but even knowing how it gets made, I’ll be damned if I’d touch a drop…and I’ve knowingly ingested beer that was fermented from saliva, made from coffee beans shat out by civet cats, and using yeast cultured from John Maier’s beard. I cannot, by most standards other than Greenberg’s, be called fastidious but I wouldn’t drink anything in Rio that didn’t come out of a bottle bearing a label that reads, “Product of (anywhere on the Earth that’s not Brazil)“.
I can only imagine the thinking behind this insane assertion that some of the world’s worst water is “not an issue”: “Hey, maybe if we get the velodrome finished and install the diving boards and get those banners printed, and get the video games wired into the athletes’ quarters, then we can worry about the water supply but, for right now, keep your eye on the ball, willya?”
Water is not optional. Water cannot be an afterthought. If it is, as the mayor of Rio states, not possible to get the local water supply cleaned up by the start of the games, the 2016 Summer Olympics MUST be cancelled. Cancelled or, at very least, boycotted by the US and every other nation that gives a damn about the safety of its athletes or it’s fans who plan to attend the games, because let’s not forget, here, that the water issue is light years from being just about the athletes. Presumably, as Rio is also one of the world’s most populous urban areas, the local digestive tracts have, over the decades, developed some resistance to those hundreds of bacteria lurking in each drop of the local water, but that quasi-immunity would NOT extend to the systems of visitors from places that have safe-water standards. Those people will ingest the local food and water and anything derived from water and get miserably, perhaps even fatally, ill. It’s not a question of if but how soon.
It is horribly, totally and unjustifiably irresponsible for the IOC to have not been the first to raise this issue and it does, in fact, piss me off considerably that I, a nearly religious digger for arcane facts from far-flung corners of the internet, had to hear this from Mike Greenberg. This should be front-page news. Greenie said today, and I give him major props for saying it, that he was appalled by this and vows to do everything he can to publicize the issue and shove it into the forefront of our collective thinking about the Rio Games. This post is my tiny $.02 toward that effort.
But, for me, it instantly brought to mind the advice of my good friend and mentor, the late Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction legend and the most fundamentally decent and wise human being it’s ever been my privilege to know: “Ask The Next Question“. Ted wore a custom-made necklace bearing this thought, expressed as the symbol seen here. It was his watchword, his primary directive in his fiction. It, too, is not optional, not if you plan to live a full and significant life on this rapidly-shrinking globe. YOU, in the place where you live, have no less of a responsibility to know what kind of water is running out when you open your tap. You should, if you’re smart, question what base water is used in making your food and your soda pop and your beer and your booze. Most smart brewers and distillers invest in water filtration, as civic water supplies vary wildly in terms of mineral content, flavor, and hardness. I vividly remember my three years in Illinois, as a teenager, where our tap water was so hard that it felt like drinking a glassful of canola oil, tasted like gravel, and wouldn’t even produce a usable lather from any soap, while bathing. I think of that and realize that I would very much NOT want to taste beers made with that water, even though it’s completely safe and as pure as our tap water here in Seattle. Now, think of that water, infested with billions of tiny, malevolent little critters just itching to find a comfortable home in your intestines and you have the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Responsibility, in the sense of something like the Olympic Games, is far less murky and obfuscated than in knowing your local water and how your neighborhood brewery uses it. You have to ask somebody about local water quality and then ask a brewer. In this egregious case, the IOC should have been the ones monitoring the water stipulation in awarding Rio the Games and should have come down hard on the Brazilian Olympic Committee to force Rio to act in time to clean up its act in time for next summer. Now, it probably is too late to do anything except the absolute right thing: Call off the Games. Yeah, yeah, I can hear it now: “But that would be a disaster! Think of the millions already spent! Think of the poor people of Rio who will not only lose money already allocated but what would be generated by the Games! Think of all the athletes and fans whose dreams of Olympic glory will be crushed!”
To which I can only reply with the plain truth: There was some bodies who were entrusted with the responsibility for thinking about all that: The Brazilian Olympic Committee, The IOC, the City of Rio de Janeiro, and the Brazilian government. If the Games are cancelled, as they damned well should be, you can either shoot the messengers like me and Greenie and all the others soon to be heard from or you can place the blame where it belongs, with the fat cats and greedheads and corrupt officials who decided that water safety and the health of the millions who will flock, as they always do, to the spectacle of the Olympic Games, was just a niggling detail that could be either addressed or not, as their time, money, and whim dictated.
I’m hoping that you, too, will talk about this and move it to the center of the world stage, here a year and change before the Games. IF nothing can be done about the most fundamental human need in Rio, then playing the Games is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette…with five bullets in the gun.