NYC Hosts Olympics for Sewer Workers

Sewer crews may get little respect, but they do have one shot at glory. At the Sewage Treatment Olympics in New York City, wastewater processors compete to see who can clean a pump, fix a pipe, and get down into a manhole first.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

And while sports lose their luster over the years, new competitions are being invented all the time.

And really, who wouldn't love to watch competitive sewer pipefitting or cheer a manhole rescue race? Those are just a few of the events in the Sewage Treatment Olympics held yesterday in New York.

NPR's Robert Smith pulled on his waterproof boots and waded in.

ROBERT SMITH: One of the perks of being a public servant in New York is that you get an official nickname. The police department is New York's finest, the firefighters are New York's bravest. But somebody forgot to name the guys who toil in the sewer system.

Mr. CARL SCHMIDT(ph) (Member, Bowery Bay Boys): New York's dirtiest, filthiest, dirtiest, whatever you want to call us.

SMITH: Carl Schmidt and Joe Russo are members of the Bowery Bay Boys, one of the most feared teams at the Sewage Olympics. And they have to get their glory here because what they do everyday is not considered sexy. There are no primetime TV shows set in the waste treatment plants and sewer pipes of New York. But the deputy commissioner for wastewater, Doug Greeley, says the city is blessed to have workers like these.

Mr. DOUGLAS GREELEY (Deputy Commissioner for Wastewater, New York City): If I wanted to get religious about it, I could say that we are the Jesus of the city because we suffer for everybody's sins. We take everybody's dirty water and we clean it up for the environment.

SMITH: But can they do it in record time?

Unidentified Man #1: Pick it up boys, pick it up…

SMITH: The Sewage Olympics is held at the wastewater treatment plant out by JFK Airport. Six teams from New York, five events: a dirty pentathlon, if you will. Here, the guys have to lower themselves into a manhole to rescue a colleague.

Unidentified Man #2: One, two, three, go. Let's move it some more.

SMITH: It's a fake sewer they constructed for the games so it's much cleaner than what Roger Alava(ph) normally encounters.

Mr. ROGER ALAVA (Sanitation Worker, New York City): Water, rocks, dirt, grit, tires, whatever you imagine. Rats, roaches, everything you don't want to see is down there.

SMITH: On another part of the course the Jamaica Bay Team is racing the clock to fix a broken sewer pipe. Their boss, Larry Brinkett(ph), gives me the play-by-play.

Mr. LARRY BRINKETT (Sanitation Worker, New York City): What they're doing in this event is they're simulating that they have a leak on a pipe.

SMITH: So is this water going to go everywhere?

Mr. BRINKETT: Hopefully not.

SMITH: What's the big pitfall here? What have they got to watch out for?

Mr. BRINKETT: Once they put it all together, they have to make sure it doesn't leak.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #3: 3:52:50.

Mr. BRINKETT: That's actually not a bad time.

SMITH: The crowd from the Sewage Olympics is - no surprise - mostly other sewer workers. Who else could appreciate the subtleties of pump maintenance, another marquee event. And they're definitely is a sewer worker look - the buzz cut.

Mr. RUSSO: You don't want to get stuff in your hair.

SMITH: And the short stature.

Mr. RUSSO: The shorter, the better. Certain spots you're going to work in, tight spots - if you're short, you can get in there. You know, you work in confined spaces, yeah.

SMITH: It certainly works for Joe Russo. His Bowery Bay Boys made it to the final to be held next weekend. The winners go on to the state and national championships in the fall. But this day ended with the wastewater version of the Olympic torch, a barbecue cookout for all the competitors.

As all the guys put down their tools and picked up hamburgers and hotdogs, I couldn't help but think of another event that should be mandatory at the Sewage Olympics: competitive hand washing.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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