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Sailing boss sacked for speaking out over Rio pollution

A file image from 2015 shows a discarded sofa on the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro. Photo / AP
A file image from 2015 shows a discarded sofa on the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro. Photo / AP

The former head of world sailing's governing body has claimed he was fired for pushing to move the Olympic sailing venue out of Rio de Janiero's Guanabara Bay due to pollution concerns.

Peter Sowrey, who left his role as chief executive of ISAF in December after just five months in the job, told the Guardian he was forced out of the organisation as he was too vocal on the issue of water quality. Sowrey proposed to move the event to Buzios, a coastal resort about 175km north east of Rio that has been host to several large sailing events, but was "told to gag myself on the subject".

"The board felt I was way too aggressive. They basically voted me out. I didn't resign. The board finally told me to leave," he said.

Andy Hunt took over the helm of the organisation earlier this month and sailing is still scheduled to begin in August in the sewage-filled bay, despite tests revealing the levels of contamination were well outside what would be considered safe.

Sowrey and Hunt both acknowledge the picturesque bay, which is overlooked by the famous Christ the Redeemer monument and Sugarloaf Mountain behind it, will make for spectacular pictures, opening the sport up to the kind of television coverage it seldom enjoys.

But it could also bring unwanted attention if sailors fall ill or the debris in the water catches on rudders and costs someone an Olympic gold medal.

Sowrey said looking at Guanabara Bay on "fact-based, data-driven model we would never consider sailing in that quality of water".

Independent testing of the bay conducted by the AP over the past year revealed disease-causing viruses linked to human sewage at levels thousands of times above what would be considered alarming in the US or Europe. The tests include the venue for sailing but also Rio's Olympic venues for rowing, canoeing, open-water swimming and triathlon.

About 1,600 athletes will compete in these venues during the Olympics, and hundreds more during the subsequent Paralympics.

When he first learned of the AP analysis, Sowrey supported the same kind of independent viral testing but he said he was nudged to support the position adopted by the International Olympic Committee, the World Health Organisation and local organisers; that the bacteria-only testing was sufficient. "I was just stepping on toes," Sowrey said.

- NZ Herald

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