Skip to main content
rio 2016

Kai Langerfeld, left to right, Conlin McCabe, Tim Schrijver and Will Crothers of Canada's men's four rowing crew drink from water bottles that were protected in plastic bags as an added percaution to avoid contamination from lake water at Lagoa in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Some athletes are also carrying hand sanitizer and avoiding putting their hands in the water.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

When Canadian rowers qualified for the Olympics this year, they did what a lot of rowers do — they splashed each other. Rowing tradition dictates that when you win a big race, you get a bit wet.

"I was throwing water up in the air," quadruple sculls rower Pascal Lussier said of the moments after their victory in Lucerne, Italy. "I was so happy."

Well, there will be none of that in Rio.

Canada's rowers are under strict instructions not to touch the water in Brazil, given the well-publicized pollution issues, particularly in Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. The picturesque, yet troubled body of water is home to the Olympic rowing events, despite its long history of being a catch basin for some of the city's raw sewage.

Knowing this, Canada's rowing team has implemented a strict protocol to keep the athletes from potentially getting sick, placing anything loose inside the boats into splash-shielding Ziploc bags and carrying hand sanitizer onboard for an immediate cleanse after training.

Athletes have been told not to touch their face when around the water. Taking no further chances, Rowing Canada also wants rowers who shake hands with anyone — be it a journalist, a fan or an Olympic official — to immediately hit the sanitizer after.

Call them hypochondriacs, but with all the concerns about bacteria and viruses floating around Rio's waterways, the rowers are taking no chances.

"We've got a bit of a protocol that Nick Clark, our physiologist, has kind of drilled down into us that we've got to be careful about not getting our hands in the water, wiping our eyes, and that kind of stuff," said men's quad coach Terry Paul.

Dirty water: Why Rio hasn't kept its promise to clean up

"I think we're being extra diligent about it."

Arguably, the rowers are more concerned about potential water-borne illness than other teams. Prior to the Olympics, Canada's chief medical officer, Bob McCormack cleared Canada's open water swimmers to compete in the waters off Copa Cabana Beach, another longstanding sewage concern. McCormack said he didn't think the water posed an unusual threat, given recent improved readings on coliform counts.

But the rowers aren't willing to gamble. In a sport so often decided by the slimmest of margins, perhaps hygiene will be one of them at these Olympics.

Lussier said the lagoon water appears okay so far, but he doesn't plan to be splashing about in it.

"We know that we're taking every precaution possible with hand sanitizer and everything, and we're not dipping our hands in the water or anything," he said.

Some teams are apparently less concerned.

"I saw the [British] boat putting their hands in the water, and Ukraine team touching the water and washing their hands with that water. For us, we're a little bit more cautious."

If he wins a medal, Lussier figures he may let his guard down, but maybe not.

"When it's over, then you can enjoy it. But even then I might not touch it too much. I want to enjoy it without being sick," he said.

Besides the health concerns, the rowing venue in Rio also poses an interesting challenge for rowers in terms of choppy waves. Many rowing courses are rimmed by rocky banks or beaches, but a cement wall surrounds Rio's lagoon. When waves reach the edge, they reverberate back against the grain, causing what racing officials refer to as an "argyle" pattern in on the surface.

"You get some interesting waves," said Peter Cookson, Rowing Canada's high performance director. "We've been practicing to be good in rough water, so I think from that point of view that's the best you can do. There are some minor changes you can make to the boats themselves to make them a little bit more forgiving, with the rigging and things. But we've done all that, and I think every other country has done that as well."

Lisa Roman, a member of the Canadian women's eight squad, said the choppiness presents a challenge for the bigger boat, since each rower has to be in sync to maintain balance.

"It's a little bumpy, but I think we expected that," Roman said. "It's really about moving well together. Exiting and entering the water together [with your oar] is crucial when it's like that. So the more you can be together the better it will be."