Battle on the Guanabara Bay for Annalise Murphy

Home for Annalise Murphy is something of a movable feast given the nature of her job, but the Dubliner has spent much of the last two years in the city of Niteroi which sits just a 15-minute ferry ride across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro.

Known as ‘Smile City’, it offers a panoramic view of Rio that takes in both Christ the Redeemer and the Sugarloaf though it is a smaller, more elegant spot than its near neighbour.

The word Niteroi translates from the Tupi language as ‘water that hides’.

How apt.

Promises were thick on the ground that the bay, as well as the beach at Copacabana where the triathlon will be held, would be cleaned for these Games but not so thick as the carpet of debris and untreated sewage that continues to cloud the area’s waters.

Some say it has improved, others say it is worse.

Everyone agrees it is bad. Awful in fact.

Cleaning up the bay was one of the main supporting beams in the city’s Olympic bid. Millions and millions of dollars was secured from international sources to help do the job but the only planks to be found now are floating with all sorts of other detritus in the waters.

Even the official estimate has it that 51% of the water reaching the bay remains untreated.

Others simply scoff at a line they deem worthy of Pravda.

“I have seen a difference and it also depends on the weather,” says Murphy. “When the weather is good, the water quality is good. When there is a lot of rain — I was there in January and we had six days of torrential rain — the water wasn’t so good. The water probably isn’t going to be good if you have six days of torrential rain anywhere.

“The water quality isn’t great but I’ve been out there nine times and I’ve been fine. I’ve never been sick or had anything wrong with me. Touch wood I don’t go out and get the plague! It’s something that you have to deal with but the organisers are definitely making an effort to clean up the area.”

Murphy has seen eco boats lifting rubbish out of the water but it seems a futile exercise when a city of 12 million people continues to — forgive the pun — dump everything from untreated human excrement, TVs, fridges, dolls, dead dogs and, in one case two months ago, a human corpse into the waters.

It is clearly an issue much bigger than the fleeting fancy that is the Olympics and the trials and tribulations of its elite athletes but it was the Games that was supposed to trigger a revolutionary environmental clean-up that would stand as a legacy to the city and its inhabitants.

Athletes can do little but get on with it. American Megan Kalmoe declared she will, like Andy Dufresne who crawled through a river of shit to escape Shawshank, “row through crap” for her country. She will have to. One of the many studies performed found that the water constitutes “potentially serious health risks”.

The Games organisers have done as much as they can, little though that is.

Contingency plans have been drawn up to alternate between the five designated sailing courses and one reserve to avoid the worst pollution, environmental updates are being issued to teams on a 48-hour basis and competitors and boats are being washed with antibacterial scrubs on making shore.

Health isn’t the only thing at risk. Murphy fished a chair out of the waters last December and perched herself on it as you would at a tea party.

There will be no scope for amusement this week as she attempts to pick up a medal and it is actually the smaller pieces of rubbish that could be particularly damaging to Olympic dreams.

Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern are another live medal contender. They compete in the 49er class. Dubbed the Formula 1 of the sailing world because of the speeds reached, it would only take one plastic bag or, as happened the duo in Rio whilst training, a flip flop to wreck a race.

“There’s nothing you can do,” says McGovern.

“In our boat it is a bit trickier because if it is windy, we will be doing quite high speeds and if you hit something, you could end up doing a lot of damage. The more common thing is plastic bags get stuck in the boards under the boat. The boat almost stops and you have to stop and pull it up and you might lose 20 or 30 seconds.”

Admittedly, that’s not unheard of elsewhere and seaweed can have the same effect.

McGovern and Seaton experienced an especially bad batch of seaweed in Perth whilst qualifying for London in 2012. It caused havoc throughout the fleet that week and every boat will take to the Guanabara Bay waters with a strategy to deal with unwanted foreign objects.

As for variables, there’s any number of others.

With six potential courses listed, some inside the bay and others outside, Murphy describes it as like sailing in a different country every day.

Every regatta bobs and weaves according to the changing winds and tidal cycles but Rio isn’t a normal venue. Competing in the Laser Radial, Murphy has known days where she has gone from sailing in five knots in calm conditions to a 30-knot squall and back again. And all in the space of 10 minutes.

Some say it is ridiculous, but Murphy is relishing that prospect. “It’s probably the most challenging place I’ve sailed in my life,” she says.

“There are so many different variables and I’m starting to think that’s why Brazil have had so many good Olympic sailors, because they are learning to sail in this difficult place.

“They get Atlantic Ocean swell when they are outside, they get really strong tides inside the bay and flat water and choppy waves and shifty conditions. They get every condition you could imagine. Sometimes all in the same day.”

There are 30 medals on offer in Rio. Every one of them will be hard earned.

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