One month before the opening of the Olympics, the city of Qingdao, the venue for the sailing competitions, is fighting a massive algae bloom. Thousands of troops and volunteers have been mobilized to clear the beaches and competition areas. Sailors and windsurfers are worried that the algae could affect their performance in next month’s competitions.
The algae threaten the Olympic sailing competitions
The waterfront of this picturesque resort city is crowded with locals and tourists enjoying the warm summer breeze. From the walkways people take in the views across the bay of Fushan. The state-of-the-art sailing facilities for the Olympics are just a stone’s throw away.
But the vistas are no longer what they used to be. For the past 10 days, the bay has been infected by a massive algae bloom. Patches of algae as thick as carpets now cover parts of the bay. The green weeds have spoiled beaches and are beginning to affect the Olympic sailing competitions.
Teams from 30 countries have already arrived in Qingdao to train but they have had to put up with delays and the foul smell of rotting algae.
But Wang Haitao of the Olympic Sailing Committee put on a brave face: “This is an unexpected catastrophe. Other countries have had similar problems in the past. We are taking this very seriously and doing everything we can to get the algae out. In a month’s time, when the Games get underway, nobody will be bothered by it.”
Across the bay, the engines of hundreds of boats, which have been dispatched to clear the waters of algae, can be heard. Some 10,000 workers, army personnel and volunteers have been mobilised to clean the unsightly stuff.
On Qingdao’s famous beaches, usually packed with sun seekers and holiday makers, khaki-clad young soldiers now stand in the water and scoop up the green muck with their bare hands. Other volunteers use rakes to pile up mounds of green weed.
Among them is 43-year-old Xu Yong Bing, who’s brought along his whole family to help: “I am a little concerned about this. The algae bloom is bad for Qingdao’s image. But I am sure that we can get rid of it if we all do our bit.”
Ultra-modern sailing facilities
The city with its leafy streets and numerous parks originally had a very different idea of what it would be like to host part of the Olympics. In the visitors’ centre on the newly constructed Olympic pier, the city presents itself as ultra modern. The authorities have spent about 850 million dollars to improve the local environment, build the new sailing facilities and set up better transport links. An entire shipyard was relocated to make way for the new pier.
But nobody is talking about any of this now. The algae bloom has taken over. Environmentalists say the bloom and others like it on the Chinese coasts are largely due to untreated sewage and farmers using too much fertilizer.
Olympic organiser Wang Haitao had another theory: “Qingdao did not cause the algae bloom. We publish the results of our water tests on the internet on a daily basis -- and there haven’t been any changes to the water quality recently. The algae bloom started in the Yellow Sea; strong winds have pushed the weeds towards our region. The water temperatures in the Yellow Sea have spurred on their rapid growth.”
Wang insisted that the sailing competitions would not be affected by the algae but sailing coach Florian Drtina was extremely concerned: “They do affect the sailing. The weeds get caught on the rudder and the keel. And that affects the speed and the way the boat reacts. If the algae are still here in August we’ll have a real problem. But the Chinese are doing everything they can to get rid of it.”
The authorities have set a deadline of mid-July to clear the competition areas. It’s a race against time that Qingdao is determined to win. By then, a huge marine fence should be in place to prevent new algae from coming into the bay. But come August, the Olympic organisers might have to deal with yet another problem -- wind or rather the lack of it. In the past couple of years Qingdao has had hardly any wind in August.