Don't Make Heroes 'Swim Through Sewage:' Swimmer Warns of Olympic Venues' 'Severely Polluted' Waters

"The truth is that all of the water in all of the venues is severely polluted," long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox tells PEOPLE

Photo: Luiz Souza/NurPhoto/Getty

Earlier this month, a group of Brazilian scientists detected a drug-resistant super bacteria in the waters off of the Rio de Janeiro beaches where 2016 Olympic swimming events will be held.

This finding came on the heels of an investigation by the Associated Press that found “dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage” in Olympic and Paralympic venues.

As various athletes have withdrawn from the Games over concerns about the Zika virus, a famed distance swimmer is warning athletes headed to Rio to compete in water sports to consider the risks they’ll face in the highly polluted waters.

“The truth is that all of the water in all of the venues is severely polluted,” long-distance swimmer and author of Swimming in the Sink, Lynne Cox tells PEOPLE. “There is raw sewage from millions of people who flush their toilets into the Guanabara Bay each day.”

Cox says she began following the issue after reading about two open-water swimmers who became seriously ill after swimming in the waters off of Rio during the 2007 Pan American Games.

“These two swimmers got infections that affected the rest of their lives in huge ways,” Cox says.

Within a few months of this race, swimmer Chip Peterson was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, according to ESPN. The disease is believed to be influenced by both environmental and genetic factors, so Peterson, who ultimately had to have his colon removed as a result of the disease, couldn’t say for sure the polluted waters had triggered it.

Then, Peterson’s teammate in the 2007 race, Kalyn Keller Robinson was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a related condition, and soon retired from swimming all together.

“When I saw what was happening in Rio, I felt I needed to say something because it’s really wrong to have the best athletes in the world having to compete in sewage I mean it just makes no sense at all,” Cox says.

Cox says she understands the perspective of the many athletes willing to assume a multitude of risks to compete at the highest level of their sport. She says this is a mistake she made herself when she was invited to represent the United States in a race in the highly polluted Nile River at just 17 years old.

“The water was extremely polluted there was raw sewage and chemical sewage being dumped right into the Nile,” she recalls. “The day of my first training swim I started getting sick.”

Cox remained sick and unable to eat for 10 days. Despite this, she still opted to compete in the 20-mile race, because she didn’t want to let her country down, she says.

“I almost passed out in the water and had to be dragged out,” she says. “They brought me to the hospital there and the doctor told me I was so dehydrated that I could have died.”

Nearly 1,400 athletes at this summer’s Olympics will come in contact with waters contaminated by pollution as they swim off of Copacabana Beach, sail in the Guanabara Bay and row on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake. AP testing over a period of five months found not one of these venues to be fit for swimming or boating.

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And, while Brazilian officials overseeing water quality at the Olympic sites have said they are monitoring for bacteria, not viruses, independent testing found “high counts of active and infectious human adenoviruses, which cause explosive diarrhea, violent vomiting, respiratory trouble and other illnesses,” according to the AP.

Dr. Richard Budgett, the medical director for the International Olympic Committee, told the AP that the despite the findings of independent investigations, “We’ve had reassurances from the World Health Organization and others that there is no significant risk to athlete health.”

The WHO has since issued a fecal pollution and water quality guideline for the Rio games calling for “limiting exposure of athletes and the public to contaminated water.”

In its bid to host the Games, the Rio 2016 committee pledged to collect and treat 80 percent of the overall sewage in Rio’s waters by 2016 – a promise that will not be kept. Then, in February, International Olympics Committee executive director of the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi told ESPN that the city would not meet that goal.

“It’s become very challenging from an economic standpoint,” he said, adding that the situation was “much improved” from the conditions at the time of the bid.

Cox says she believes the failure to meet this target will put Olympic athletes in “grave risk.”

“I don’t understand how the coaches, the event organizers and the IOC can put the athlete’s health at grave risk,” Cox says. “I wonder how much these athletes are really being respected or honored because you don’t take heroes and make them swim through sewage. It’s just wrong.”

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