By Georgia Grimond, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Wonwoo Cho, a twenty year-old South Korean windsurfer, was admitted to hospital on Tuesday, August 18th, suffering from dehydration, vomiting and dizziness after competing in the Aquece Rio International Sailing Regatta. The event was held at Marina da Glória in Guanabara Bay which has recently come under criticism for its high level of water pollution. His coach, Danny Ok, was quick to blame the water for Cho’s illness but no cause has been ascertained.
The athlete was back to around fifty percent strength on Wednesday, August 19th when he returned to training. Registering in the race as DNF (Did Not Finish), he ended the competition 23rd out of 28 overall. Though Cho said he did not know why he was sick, his coach was more certain.
On Facebook, along with a photo of Cho being lifted into an ambulance, he wrote “More than ten years of lifetime effort can be destroyed in one day! This is not an emergency situation but it’s very disappointing… It seems he got infected from virus somewhere in the racing site which is supposed to be safe and clean as an Olympic venue.”
Other sources, such as Dr. Nebojsa Nikolic, a top medical at the International Sailing Federation, however point to the difficulty of finding the cause of a viral infection. Nikolic told AP it could have been “someone sneezing near him.”
The Sailing Federation also confirmed that the number of medical cases brought to their attention in the first five days was well below the average for a regatta of this size. Only two of the 326 athletes and 68 technical officials that participated in the event sought medical help.
The incident comes only weeks after AP published a long-running independent study into Rio’s water quality which showed high levels of viruses and bacteria, as well as debris and raw sewage at many of the Olympic venues. Though Rio’s officials claim the water meets acceptable standards, concern has been raised about the risk to athletes competing on the waters in the run up to and during the 2016 Olympic Games.
Fifteen American rowers were taken ill earlier this month after taking part in the World Junior Rowing Championships on Lagoa Rodrigo Freitas, which also served as a Rio 2016 test event. American officials, however, refused to blame the water, citing nervousness and travel sickness as plausible causes. U.S. rowing CEO, Glenn Merry, said it would be “easy but irresponsible” hold the water responsible for the competitors’ sickness.
It is widely accepted that much of Rio’s open water won’t meet cleanliness targets ahead of next year’s Games yet few teams advocate a change of venue. Sailors are said to be less worried about getting ill than coming across rubbish in the water which can slow them down and alter their course, although stop-gap measures to retrieve floating items have been implemented now. Many teams have also adapted to the conditions, setting up training camps on the waters in advance and undertaking strict levels of hygiene.
The Aquece Rio International Sailing Regatta continues until Saturday, August 22nd.