Algae Overload Threatens Olympic Sailing Course A vast amount of stinky green algae is threatening the Olympic sailing course in China; more than 14,000 workers are rushing to remove it all before the competition starts in five weeks. Olympic officials are confident the algae will be removed, but competitors are finding training difficult.

Algae Overload Threatens Olympic Sailing Course

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro, in for Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. An invasion of stinky green weed is proliferating and expanding, causing thousands of people to be deployed in a battle against it. Not a horror movie, it's the real-life situation in the Chinese city of Qingdao. Qingdao is due to host the Olympic sailing events in just five weeks, and that Olympic regatta is being threatened by this natural disaster, a massive algae slick covering 5,000 square miles of sea. NPR's Louisa Lim is there.

LOUISA LIM: When China's leaders boasted they would host a green Olympics, this is surely not what they had in mind. The entire coastline here has been blanketed in great swaths of bright green algae. It's almost luminous green, and it smells absolutely foul. And I'm sitting here watching armies of volunteers using rakes and some of them using their bare hands, scooping this algae off the surface of the sea in order to try to clean it up in time for the Olympics.

Mr. ZHOU YUKUAI (Volunteer, Qingdao, China): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We're making our contribution to the Olympics, says Zhou Yukuai as he rakes away, but this smells so bad, he said, I won't be able to eat seafood tonight.

Mr. LIU QINGWEN (Tobacco Boss): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: This is really tiring, says tobacco boss Liu Qingwen, as he heaves dripping sacks of gunky green seaweed from one spot to another. He's leading 150 employees here who've been ordered by the government to do their bit.

They're among 14,000 workers who've been drafted into the cleanup effort. Qu Chun, the competition manager for the sailing events, admits to sleepless nights, but believes it's under control.

Mr. QU CHUN (Competition Manager, Olympic Sailing Events): We will moving very quick to solve this problem.

LIM: Are you totally, 100-percent confident that you can solve this problem?

Mr. CHUN: Yes, I am confident. It's my very big challenge, but I think we have a very strong government at the back of me, so I'm still feel confident for that.

(Soundbite banging, water flowing)

LIM: Scientists say the algae bloom was flushed into Qingdao waters from the Yellow Sea by an unlucky confluence of southerly winds and sea currents. The sea temperature and salinity here has helped the weed proliferate. Some believe chemical pollutants and sewage in the seawater may have also contributed to the algae bloom.

For sportsmen like U.S. Olympic windsurfer Benjamin Barger, the green tide is the stuff of horror movies.

Mr. BENJAMIN BARGER (Olympic Windsurfer): It's like a bad episode of "Poltergeist." With the board in the water, you're so close to the water, the green stuff will get on the board, and then you'll slip off. You know, we have great pictures and a lot of humor out there with the board sailors tacking and slipping off, and then falling on themselves, then getting slimed, really. So yeah, it's pretty nasty.

LIM: At the training area, sails are hoisted, ready to go. But with 30 percent of the competition course choked in algae, boats are getting becalmed in green gunk.

Mr. STUART McNAY (Olympic Sailor): The biggest patches of algae we've seen have been half a mile across.

LIM: That's Stuart McNay, who's the U.S. gold medal hope in the 470 class, with partner Graham Biehl. Biehl explains that even getting to the competition course is proving hazardous.

Mr. GRAHAM BIEHL (Olympic Sailor): Most of the days, there's either too much algae on our course to actually be there, or it gets too foggy or hazy that it can be a little dangerous. Our coaches have GPS's to help us get back to shore, which we needed yesterday, or none of us would have made it back.

LIM: But Qingdao's shortcomings as an Olympic sailing site are no surprise to the sailing community.

Mr. MICHAEL JONES (Australian Sailing Program Director): The first time we came here, everybody was in absolute horror and aghast at the conditions.

LIM: Australian sailing program director Michael Jones.

Mr. JONES: It's an interesting and challenging place to sail would be the nice way to put it, in that it's very light wind, has relatively high current because of tidal flow. And, you know, we've had periods here in other test events where we've had issues with jellyfish in the water.

LIM: Diggers and backhoes scoop the sludgy green gunk into trucks. They're racing to meet the government's promise to finish the cleanup in two weeks.

The 20-mile-long sea barrier will also fence off the competition venue. China's determined to control all the variables it can, but the wind and ocean currents are beyond Beijing's mastery, and these Olympians may still find the sailing hard going, even without the algae. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Qingdao, China.

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