RIO DE JANEIRO — Nico Delle Karth, an Austrian sailor preparing for the 2016 Summer Olympics, said it was the foulest place he had ever trained.
Garbage bobbed on the surface, everything from car tires to floating mattresses. The water reeked so much of sewage that he was afraid to put his feet in it to launch his boat.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Delle Karth said of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, where the Olympic sailing and windsurfing events will take place.
Even as Brazil scrambles to finish an array of stadiums for the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament in a few weeks, it is coming under scathing criticism for its handling of the next mega-event on its plate, the 2016 Summer Games.
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Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of the influential association representing various Summer Olympic sports, said the Rio Games were in “the most risky position” of any Olympics he could remember. John D. Coates, an International Olympic Committee vice president, said last month that Rio’s preparations were “the worst I have experienced,” with construction yet to begin on the Deodoro sports complex, the second most important site after Olympic Park.
Guanabara Bay, nestled between Sugarloaf Mountain and other granite peaks, offers the kind of a postcard image Rio’s authorities want to celebrate as hosts of the 2016 Summer Olympics. But it has become a focal point of complaints, turning Rio’s polluted waters into a symbol of frustrations with the troubled preparations for the Olympics.
“Welcome to the dump that is Rio,” Germany’s sailing team said in one typically blunt assessment of the site for the Olympic regatta.
Brazilians training here agree.
“It can get really disgusting, with dog carcasses in some places and the water turning brown from sewage contamination,” said Thomas Low-Beer, 24, a Brazilian Olympic hopeful who sails in the bay. He shuddered when recalling how his dinghy crashed into what he believed was a partly submerged sofa, capsizing him into the murky Guanabara.
Although international officials complain that Brazil has had almost five years since winning its Olympic bid to make headway, some of the delays stem from chronic problems the nation has long fought.
Well-financed efforts to clean up the bay have proved disappointing for decades, undercut by mismanagement and allegations of corruption. The political rivalries among local, state and federal layers of government have led to infighting, including an impasse over who should pay for certain Olympic projects. Protests over forced evictions to make way for the Olympics have slowed construction.
The Olympics are hardly the only pressing concern for a country grappling with an economic slowdown. The World Cup begins June 12, and several of the 12 stadiums where soccer games are supposed to be held are not finished, while a number of transit projects will not be completed until after the tournament.
Some officials say the situation is more precarious than the troubled run-up to the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
“I think in terms of time available, we are even worse,” said Ricci Bitti, president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations.
Ricci Bitti and other Olympic officials have publicly asserted that there is no Plan B, that the games will not be moved from Rio. Still, Brazilian officials have reacted to criticism with statements that have not exactly reassured Olympic officials.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes told reporters he and other authorities were “pretty sure” they would deliver on their promises to have the venues ready in time.
Of all the challenges Brazil faces, cleaning up Guanabara Bay may be the toughest.
Officials vowed to tackle the problem after the U.N. Earth Summit here in 1992 drew scrutiny of Rio’s foul waters. The Rio state government secured more than $1 billion in loans from Japan’s government and the Inter-American Development Bank for cleanup projects, but they have not been even remotely successful, according to environmental experts.
The State Environmental Institute in Rio de Janeiro estimates that more than 10 percent of the trash here is not collected, much of it flowing into the bay through canals and degraded rivers.
Vast amounts of raw sewage leak into the waters. Officials set a goal of treating as much as 80 percent of it by the 2016 Olympics, but less than 40 percent is now treated. State environmental officials have acknowledged they would fall short of that goal, The Associated Press reported last weekend, citing a letter sent to federal authorities requesting more funding to battle pollution.
Calling the bay “dark, brown and stinking,” Lars Grael, 50, a Brazilian sailing legend who won two Olympic medals, said he had encountered dead bodies on four occasions while sailing in the bay. He told reporters that officials should move the sailing events to a resort area hours away by car.
The authorities insist that nothing of the sort will happen. Carlos Portinho, Rio’s top environmental official, said the criticism of Guanabara Bay was exaggerated, contending that recent tests had shown that fecal contamination in the Olympic regatta area was within “satisfactory” standards in Brazil.
Acknowledging that reversing pollution in the bay was a “long-term project,” Portinho said officials had deployed three small “ecoboats” to collect garbage; by the Olympics, he said, 20 or 30 might be operating. He said new sewage-treatment plants were being built, while floating “ecobarriers” would facilitate the collection of trash in the bay.
Brazilian environmental experts say the efforts are a fraction of what needs to be done.
“The government could deploy aircraft carriers to collect the bay’s garbage and the problem would not be solved,” said Mario Moscatelli, a biologist. “The bay is still a latrine. It’s an insult to Rio’s people to say it will be clean for the Olympics.”