Rowing lake a contender for Rio's 'best venue', despite water controversy

RIO DE JANEIRO - In setting alone, the venue where Olympic rowers and canoe sprinters will battle for gold has to be one of the most remarkable open-air sporting theatres in the world.

After winding down Avenue Niemeyer from the Olympic Park, catching glimpses of the Sugerloaf Mountain with one side of the road hugged by pristine beaches, you arrive at the lake. Boats are spread out over Lagoa Rodrigo des Freitas; athletes are getting their bearings on the water, navigating the intricacies, finding anything to improve their chances.

The statue of Cristo Redentor -- masked by cloud on Wednesday -- looms down over the start line. The high-wire camera is being put through its paces while the first thing medal-winning rowers will see when they turn around to hug their teammates at the finishing line will be the Olympic rings.

It should be sporting nirvana. Yet the focus until now has been on the water itself rather than what will race through it. That continued in the brief press conference at the venue on Wednesday, with the immediate focus remaining on illness, water cleanliness and hygiene rather than medal chasing.

The water has been a frequent theme of the build-up to the Games with the lagoon in the spotlight for the sky-high levels of human adenovirus. A recent study by Associated Press showed the start line of the rowing race carried a reading of 28,445,510 genome copies per litre, nearly 30,000 times more than a level deemed hazardous.

Then there are the problems following high rainfall where "sewerage overflow may spill into the lagoon," according to a 2015 (FISA) statement.

It is far from ideal but there have been no grumbles from the Team GB camp. "There's nowhere we row that's totally perfect," said team rowing manager Sir David Tanner.

"I'm on record when we came here 18 months ago as a team to say that we know that in some major weather events, the water quality can deteriorate but in its normal way, which it is now, we are as happy as can be about the water.

"We are taking normal precautions to keep everyone healthy so we're using a lot of hand rub, which they use when they come off the water. So we're being very careful. But as far as the quality of the water, we are content with it."

Though they are content, the rowers' precautions are wide-ranging. "I've been to my third Olympic Games now and lots of different regattas but I've never seen precautions like this, not because there's a big threat but because it's the Olympics and it's important," said Pete Reed, a two-time gold medal winner in the coxless fours.

"On specifics, we got to our rooms on Friday and opened up our bathrooms -- there was soap, antibacterial soap, antiseptic soap that surgeons use to scrub up with and a Dettol spray and instructions of where to put that.

"Everyone's carrying antibacterial hand rub with them and a lot of boats that I know, rather than putting their bottle in the bottom of the boats like we normally do, they are putting a special bottle with a cap and another cap on top and then in a bag. So we're minimising any possible problems coming on.

"I know a few blokes aren't taking bottles out on the water so they're drinking before they row and then coming off and drinking again.

"It's all precautions, none of us are scared about that sort of thing -- we're just sensible, proactive and we're very professional. The right thing to do is minimise risks and we're doing that well."

Aside from the water, Team GB rowers are still coming to terms with Tuesday's setback of Graeme Thomas being ruled out due to illness. It was a call Thomas disagreed with but Tanner said it was a decision made with the athlete's best interests at heart.

He added: "He's beginning to reflect on that and perhaps think that we were being sensible but it might take a few weeks to get around to that."

The rowing gets underway on Saturday. Up first for Team GB is Alan Campbell in the men's single skulls and on Sunday Helen Glover and Heather Stanning get their medal charge underway in the women's pair.

"We're ready, we're excited and we're looking forward to what this venue will bring," said Glover, who is targeting her second Olympic gold.

Then come the other contenders as they look to chase the upper target of eight medals. They will do so in what Tanner says "has to be the best venue" in Rio. "The Lagoa, I hope, will be the look of the Games." For good reasons, rather than ill.