In the weeks leading up to the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro's sailing venue was not a pretty picture. Despite the host city's successes in clearing away a significant quantity of sewage from the Marina da Gloria, competitors continued to report large flotillas of trash -- made up of everything from Coke cans to items of household furniture -- obstructing their practice runs in Guanabara Bay.
Organizers insisted that plans were in place to remove such obstacles during the Games, with spotters in helicopters providing the GPS coordinates of debris to garbage-clearing ships below.
If the sailors themselves remained skeptical, it was because they knew this would not be the first time floating detritus had found its way onto an Olympic course. In fact, a variety of athletes over the course of Olympic history -- from runners to swimmers to gymnasts -- have had to endure less-than-ideal conditions during the most prestigious competition in sports.
'Dirty little secret'
Ask American windsurfer Mike Gebhardt about his experience at Barcelona in 1992.
"Oh yeah," he says with a laugh. "I sailed right by a dead cow!"
Although Spanish authorities commissioned four ships to clear the Port Olímpic venue on a daily basis, competitors still found themselves navigating garbage drifts and animal carcasses. During one race, a plastic bag got caught on Gebhardt's board. He lost six places before he was able to remove it.
"I kept looking and looking because I was going slow as s---," he recalls. "I thought maybe I had weeds, but I'd look down and, because the plastic was clear, I couldn't see it. Finally, I noticed just a little bitty air bubble coming up off the edge."
That incident might have cost Gebhardt a gold medal. In the 1992 windsurfing event, points based on finishing position were compiled over 10 races. Gebhardt finished just a fraction behind the winner, Franck David, and far ahead of bronze medalist Lars Kleppich.
Not that Gebhardt feels bitter about his experience.
"There's two ways to look at it," he says. "You can get mad and make up a nice story -- 'Oh, you know, garbage cost me my medal' -- or you can empower yourself and say, 'Hey, the other guy was a little more consistent.' I could have recognized that problem more quickly."
The polluted water that surrounds major coastal cities is, for Gebhardt, the world's "dirty little secret." If trash impedes sailors in Rio, it won't be anything new.
Crazy old Games
Quite possibly the most chaotic Games of all time took place on American soil, in St. Louis, back in 1904. The event had originally been awarded to Chicago, but a combination of political pressure and funding issues saw it relocated to the city that was already hosting the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (commonly known as the St. Louis World's Fair) the same year.
The 1904 marathon remains one of the most bizarre and brutal events in Olympic history. Commencing in 90-degree heat, it featured seven hills -- some as high as 300 feet -- and only two opportunities for the competitors to get a drink of water, the last of those at a well 12 miles from the finish.
Runners were forced to dodge traffic on public roads, and historic accounts suggest a South African runner was chased off course and across a cornfield by wild dogs. Fewer than half of those competing made it to the finish line, and the man who got there first, Fred Lorz, had hitched a ride in a car for 11 miles.
Yet the marathon runners got off easy compared to those competing in the aquatic events. Swimming, diving and water polo were conducted at the Life Saving Exhibition Lake, whose title would later take on a cruel irony, following reports that several athletes who competed there died within a year of the Games.
"It's possible that these stories are apocryphal, but there is some strong suggestion that two or three of the U.S. water polo players died because of their exposure to that E. coli-infested water."Olympic historian Robert K. Barney, referring to the 1904 Games
The venue, named to highlight the U.S. Coast Guard demonstrations it hosted during the World's Fair, was created by diverting water from the Mississippi into a man-made reservoir. By the time the Olympics began, it had been sitting stagnant, with no filtration system, for months. Worse, it had likely been contaminated with manure from the livestock that grazed outside the World's Fair's nearby agricultural exhibition.
"The longer you were exposed to those waters, the more risk you assumed," says Olympic historian Robert K. Barney, co-author of a paper on the 1904 aquatic events. "With water polo, you were in there a lot. It's possible that these stories are apocryphal, but there is some strong suggestion that two or three of the U.S. water polo players died because of their exposure to that E. coli-infested water."
In a more immediate sense, swimmers in St. Louis were hindered by the absence of such modern aides as starting blocks and lane lines. That, though, was hardly surprising. The Olympics in the early part of the 20th century were routinely haphazard in organization, and the history books are thick with stories of similarly poor planning.
At the 1900 Games in Paris, the discus event took place in a narrow space between two rows of trees, whose limbs caught some of the throws. Twelve years later, the cycling time trial in Stockholm extended for a wildly ambitious 196 miles. Cross-country running was taken off the Olympic schedule altogether after a 1924 debacle in which fewer than half the entrants made it to the end of a course that featured knee-high thistles and a close encounter with a power plant belching fumes.
More recent examples of inadequate Olympic venues are harder to come by and generally less dramatic. Even host nations who struggled to complete building works on time -- such as Montreal in 1976 and Athens in 2004 -- managed to ensure the events themselves were not compromised.
Besides sailing, there have been only occasional instances of venues failing to provide athletes with good conditions for competing. The most glaring such case came at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where the vault apparatus was set 5 centimeters too low for the final of the women's all-around gymnastics competition.
This mistake might have gone unnoticed if not for Australia's Allana Slater. Two groups of gymnasts had completed their rotations on the vault and committed an unusually high number of errors before Slater got ready to compete with the third group. She had been too focused on herself to notice her rivals' struggles, but as soon as she lined up for a practice run, she noticed that something was not right.
"I was standing at the end of the vault run, and I remember saying to some of the girls, 'Does the vault look low to you?'" Slater says. "I don't know if they didn't understand me, speaking in English, or they just weren't sure, but as I did my one warm-up turn, I knew.
"I was quite a short gymnast, so I was always going up onto the vault. All of a sudden, I'm going down onto into it instead. As soon as I landed, I tried to tell my coach, and he's like, 'Allana, get off the mat!' I just remember thinking, 'I'm not getting off here until they've measured it because there's no way this is right.'"
Officials were summoned and quickly confirmed the mistake. The vault was adjusted to its proper height, and all athletes who had been affected were offered the chance for a do-over. For some, though, the damage had already been done. Great Britain's Annika Reeder was forced to withdraw after she got injured on a bad landing, and others had gone on to make further mistakes as they tried to compensate for their poor vault scores.
"I really do feel for the athletes for whom that was the first apparatus," Slater says. "It may have totally spun them out for the rest of the final. I know that Svetlana Khorkina was a front-runner at the 2000 Olympics, going for the gold medal in the all-around. She made an error due to the vault height being wrong, and that unfortunately led to another error on the next apparatus."
A subsequent investigation by the governing body of gymnastics found that the vault had been set too low as a result of human error. Additional controls were put in place to make sure that could not be repeated at future events.
In the grand scheme of Olympic history, such a story is no great scandal. Officials in Sydney were neither as negligent as those in St Louis 112 years ago nor as slow in reacting to criticism as those in Rio have been with this summer's sailing event. But for the likes of Khorkina and Reeder, those 5 centimeters made all the difference in the world.