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Swimming in sewage: Brazil’s 2016 Summer Olympics

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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A young man dives into the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 31, 2015 (Credit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The 2016 Summer Olympics may seem an eternity away as we gear up for the Christmas season, but the Games have made headlines in recent days due to the latest developments regarding the conditions athletes can expect next August. Budget cuts and allegations of corruption have already created a number of issues and, with the organizers of the Games needing to trim some $520 million from their budget over the next eight months, it seems likely that more problems will arise.

As the Associated Press reports, one of the first budget cuts was air conditioning in the athletes’ rooms. When asked why they felt the AC could be made optional in a city that saw highs of over 95 degrees Fahrenheit at times this past August, Mario Andrada, a spokesman for the Rio Games, simply said “We don’t think it’s going to be critical [to have air conditioning] here.” Now, some countries might pay for their athletes to enjoy cooler temperatures in their rooms but it’s unclear whether or not the poorer nations can afford to do so.

However, the biggest dilemma these budget shortfalls have caused is in regards to the water conditions in the bays where the distance swimming and sailing events are to take place. Towards the end of July, the AP reported that the levels of disease-causing viruses found in the water to be used for such events was similar to those found in raw sewage. Considering that an estimated hundreds of millions of liters of raw sewage flows into the bay area from contaminated rivers and storm drains every day, perhaps that should not come as a surprise.

The committee that presented Rio’s bid back in 2007 acknowledged the need to fix the water quality before the games began and promised to do so. Making the water safe was meant to be one of the Games’ primary legacies for the city. However, the funding to make the necessary changes never materialized and the plan is now to simply try and make the water safe for the four weeks of competition by essentially treating it like an oil spill. It is unclear whether such steps will be sufficient to make the waters safe given that the latest testing revealed disease-causing viruses linked to human sewage of up to 1.7 million times what would be considered dangerous in the U.S. or Europe.

Perhaps part of the reason why the necessary funds were not made available to fix the water supply is that the International Olympic Committee refuses to make viral testing of the waters a necessary part of the preparation for the Games. As the bacterial levels are largely within regulations, this gives Rio an excuse to focus on other issues. They cite the World Health Organization’s recommendations that bacterial testing should be sufficient despite the fact that such a recommendation appears to contradict the WHO’s own published studies regarding the efficacy of bacterial testing for determining the viral content of water. It would appear that such statements are far too similar to the sewage content they have largely ignored.

Either way, it seems strange that a group claiming that athlete safety is one of its top priorities would not prioritize that safety enough to clean up the waters in which many of those athletes will compete. They can promise what they want, but their actions would seem to tell a different story.

One of the primary reasons that the old cliché “actions speak louder than words” is largely true is that our actions give the best demonstration of our true priorities. There is often a disconnect between what we want to value and what we actually do. As a result, words can be deceiving because they frequently come from intent rather than reality. But our actions typically do not have that problem.

That is why the scriptures speak so frequently about the need to be cognizant of what we do in addition to what we say. It’s why James encourages us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving” ourselves and why he goes on to caution that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 1:22, 2:17).

If we truly prioritize our faith in the manner Christ demands, taking up our crosses daily to follow him, then that faith will be demonstrated by our actions. If God is truly your first priority, then you will be a doer of the word and the vitality of your faith will be evident for all to see. So think back on the way you have acted recently and ask God to help you see what those actions say about where he ranks on your list of priorities. Scripture is clear where the Lord should be on that list (Matthew 6:33). But where is he on yours?