Going for Gold: the opportunity in the polluted waters of the Rio Olympics


No matter who you are, or where you live, the Olympics hold an inexplicable sort of magic. It's the anticipation, the competition, the excitement of cheering for 'your' team in the company of raucous family, friends and fans. It's the culmination of decades of grueling, determined, all-consuming training to achieve the seemingly impossible. And it's the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share your city, your culture, your country with the world.

But we're missing the magic in the countdown to the Olympics right now. Blindsided by Zika, plagued by crime, and unable to deliver on its promises to clean up dangerously polluted waterways ahead of the Games, the Rio 2016 headlines we're seeing in the news now can only be described as disheartening: disheartening for Brazil, disheartening for the athletes, disheartening for the Olympic organizers, and disheartening for all the rest of us, too.

But I'm a big believer in silver linings, and the Rio 2016 Olympics have achieved something remarkable even before they've begun. The Rio 2016 Olympics have--albeit unintentionally--broken the silence on one of the world's most dire global crises: the lack of water, sanitation and hygiene.

Let me be clear: I would much rather be celebrating news that every single person in Brazil has clean water and a toilet, and that the world's top athletes are able to compete without fear of the lasting effects of 'super bacteria' in the water. But until the day that that can be achieved, the country's role in raising awareness around the gravity of the water and sanitation crisis is an incredibly important one.

Brazil is not alone in facing a water and sanitation crisis of epic proportions. Around the world, 650 million people live without clean water, while some 2,365,004,300 people endure the burdens of life without access to toilets and sanitation on a daily basis. That's 1 in 3 people globally for whom progress has been far too slow. Time and time again, it's the people in the poorest communities who are getting left behind.

The result is not only pollution, but illness, vulnerability, the spread of infection and lost opportunities to attend school, run successful businesses or pursue personal aspirations. What's more, the lack of clean water and sanitation is also linked to stunting in children--a topic being raised by world leaders at the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Rio just ahead of the Games on August 4th.

WaterAid's new report Caught short makes the case that malnutrition is not just caused by a lack of food, but that the lack of access to a safe toilet, clean water and good hygienic practices like handwashing also play a major role. Repeated bouts of diarrhea are directly linked to malnutrition and are caused by dirty water and unhygienic environments.

2016-07-28-1469730589-3835322-81860.jpg A group of 8-year old children and one 9-year old girl (center) stand beneath a chalk mark indicating the global average height for their age at a primary school in Ooti, Karnataka State, India. Most of the children in the photo measure the same height as a healthy 5-year old. Photo credit: WaterAid / Ronny Sen

We shouldn't have to choose between caring about the health of the athletes OR the people who face these unacceptable realities every day. The truth is, no one should have to face the serious health consequences of sewage contaminated water. Not world-class athletes competing for their country, not tourists who have come to experience Rio's Olympic magic first-hand, and not the residents of Rio who suffer from the effects of life without clean water, toilets or hygiene each and every day.

The 2016 Rio Olympics represent a golden opportunity: an opportunity for Olympic athletes to lend their voice to the fight against the global water and sanitation crisis, an opportunity for citizens and private companies to stand up and become part of the solution, and an opportunity for governments--not just in Brazil, but worldwide--to make good on the promise they made when they signed up to the UN Global Goals to eradicate extreme poverty, including by ensuring clean water, toilets and hygiene for everyone.

Header photo credit: Ipanema Beach, Rio. by Natalie Davies