The Claim and Our Verdict
- The claim: A Facebook post published July 26, 2021, claims several Olympic athletes vomited after competing in the triathlon events at the Tokyo Olympics due to a high level of E. coli bacteria in the swimming area.
- Officials with the 2019 Tokyo ITU Paratriathlon World Cup cancelled the swimming segment of the event on Aug. 17, 2019, because water quality tests in Tokyo Bay found levels of E. coli bacteria had exceeded acceptable limits.
- One of the photos in the Facebook claim shows British triathlete Jonny Brownlee vomiting. However, this photo was not taken after the swimming segment of the Tokyo Olympics triathlon event, but after he had completed the running segment and the full race.
- According to water quality reports published by World Triathlon, all triathlon venues at the Tokyo Olympics were in “Very Good Water Quality.” The amount of E. coli bacteria found in samples from three testing spots at different times were all below 10 NMP/100mL, far less than the accepted limits of 250 NMP/100mL.
- Zhong Mengying, a Chinese triathlete who participated in the Tokyo Olympics, published a Weibo post after the competition. She claims the Olympic staff had confirmed the safety and quality of the water in a technical conference before the race. The information in the photo attached in her post is identical to that in the official water test report.
- Our ruling: Therefore, we rate the claim as FALSE.
A Facebook post published July 26, 2021, claims several Olympic athletes vomited after completing the triathlon event at the Tokyo Olympics. According to some Japanese netizens, the route of the swimming segment would pass through a sewage area of Tokyo Bay. In 2019, the level of E. coli bacteria at the race venue was found to be more than twice World Triathlon standards, and the water stank. Therefore, some people suspected the athletes vomited because of the water quality problem.
As of the issuance of this report, the post had been shared 349 times, and had received 54 comments and 321 reactions.
A keyword search found the swimming segment of 2019 Tokyo ITU Paratriathlon World Cup was cancelled due to a high level of E. coli bacteria. According to Reuters, 2020 Tokyo Olympics organizers said that they would install more filtering screens in Tokyo Bay before the start of the Olympic Games. Organizers said a comprehensive review would be undertaken and best efforts would be made to provide a “safe and sound environment for athletes” during the Olympic Games.
The photo was originally published on Getty Images, a British-American visual media company and a supplier of editorial photography. The caption states, “Great Britain’s Jonny Brownlee vomits after finishing fifth in the Men’s Triathlon at the Odaiba Marine Park on the third day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.” Therefore, an athlete did vomit after finishing the men’s triathlon event at the Tokyo Olympics. However, he vomited after completing the three segments of the triathlon, not immediately after the swimming segment. We cannot establish a direct link between triathletes vomiting and the quality of the water.
Two athletes briefing documents (one for men and one for women) published by World Triathlon ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics show the water quality test results and sampling times before the competitions.
The Tokyo Olympics followed the criteria of World Triathlon for safe and acceptable water levels. A World Triathlon water quality statement clarified the requirements of water quality control and relevant indicators for Level 1 (Very Good Water Quality) to Level 4 (Poor Water Quality) categories.
The four-level water quality measurement was an overall assessment based on pre-event water quality test results, sanitary assessments, and weather forecasts. The statement also gave suggestions for a sudden change of water quality: “The water quality results delivery may vary from 48 hours to 96 hours depending on the methodology that the laboratory is using; therefore, making a decision on competition delay based purely on data that is not reflecting the current conditions 100% is not advisable. Particularly in cases where the event is running under raining conditions, World Triathlon use approach recommended by WHO to guide decision making (Water Quality Decision Matrix) …”
Also highlighted in the statement: “World Triathlon recommend to organize only triathlons in swimming water that falls in the Excellent water quality category. If the water quality test shows values out of the tolerance limits as indicated above the swim will be cancelled, unless the World Triathlon Medical Committee permits the Good Water Quality category.”
The water quality tests of the women’s competition were conducted July 22 and July 23, before the July 27 event. The report was publicly published July 25. According to the report, the triathlon venues at the Tokyo Olympics were evaluated as “Very Good Water Quality” (Level 1). The levels of E. coli and Enterococcus bacteria didn’t exceed the limits specified in the standards. The results also show that the levels of E. coli bacteria in three testing spots at different times were all normal (<10 NMP/100mL), far less than the safety limit (250 NMP/100mL).
Zhong Mengyin, a Chinese triathlete who participated in Tokyo Olympics, published a Weibo post after the competition. She claims, “I did not notice any strange smells. Olympics staff had confirmed the safety and quality of the water in a technical conference before the race. According to their report, the water quality meets the standards (though I did not photograph the whole analytic report and cannot find it online, either). Although the water didn’t look that crystal clear, it wouldn’t affect people’s health.” The information in the photo attached in the Weibo post is identical to that in the official water quality test.
The levels of E. coli bacteria in Tokyo Bay during triathlon events at the Tokyo Olympics, therefore, did not exceed the accepted limits.
Therefore, we rate the claim as FALSE.
- Facebook post, July 26, 2021.
- Getty Images, “Great Britain’s Jonny Brownlee vomits after finishing fifth in the Men’s Triathlon at the Odaiba Marine Park on the third day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan,” July 26, 2021.
- Reuters, “E.coli in water forces Tokyo to cancel swimming at Paratriathlon World Cup”, Aug. 17, 2019.
- World Triathlon, Tokyo 2020 documents page.
- Tokyo 2020 official website, “Men’s briefing & pontoon draw,” July 24, 2021.
- Tokyo 2020 official website, “Women’s briefing & pontoon draw,” July 25, 2021.
- World Triathlon, “World Triathlon Water Quality Statement,” Feb. 4, 2019.
- Zhong Mengying, Weibo post, July 27, 2021.