BARCELONA, SPAIN — From the shore, the picture is perfect. A blue, cloudless sky.|| TC glistening sea. A pack of windsurfers returning to the safety of a harbor that is lined with shops, stores and slips.
But take a closer look.
To win a gold medal in Olympic sailboarding will require more than an ability to race in a straight line from start to finish. The champion may encounter a few obstacles, such as oil slicks, plastic bags, dead fish, rats and dogs and the occasional floating refrigerator.
"I think it's like sailing on poison," said Kelly McCaig, a trainer for the Canadian team. "It's just a little more buoyant."
Welcome to the romantic, fabled Mediterranean Sea, otherwise known as the sewer of Barcelona.
This is no playpen for the rich and the famous. It's an obstacle course lined with stuff flushed down the toilets of Barcelona's 1.7 million residents.
"It was actually worse last year," said Australia's Fiona Taylor. "I saw a double bed float by. You avoid that really fast."
While the other Olympic sailors have the luxury of skimming over the water in boats, the competitors who ride the boards are closer to the grit, grime and grunge.
Not even a cleanup campaign, a new, multimillion-dollar sewage treatment system and the vigilance of the Olympic organizers could undo the damage done by decades of industrial and residential pollution.
Ten luxury ocean liners docked in the Barcelona harbor and filled with tourists won't be aiding the environmental cause, either.
"Some people have seen the dead rats, the dead sheep, but we haven't yet," said Ole Eggelad, a Danish trainer. "We've seen the dead dog. But what's worse are the things you can't see. The things that make your stomach sick you can't do anything about. You just try not to drink the water."
Bob McDavitt, the meteorologist for the New Zealand team, went out in a boat for a closer inspection. He discovered not one, but two floating refrigerators.
"They were all full of rubbish," he said. "No beer."
Barcelona's rainiest June in years taxed the sewage systems. An offshore breeze then kept the garbage from floating farther out to sea.
To combat the gunk, New Zea- landers were inoculated against hepatitis B, Americans take frequent showers and everyone carries eye drops and iodine.
"The organizers keep telling us that the bacterial count is good," McDavitt said. "I don't know what it is good for. Apparently, it's safe to go swimming. But I wouldn't go in this stuff. It looks brown."
The beach at the athletes' village, cordoned off by a barbed-wire fence,virtually was deserted Saturday. But nearby, the public beach was packed with sun worshipers, if not swimmers. That's actually good news for the Barcelona city government, which views the new Olympic village and marina as building blocks to a shore rehabilitation project.
Still, there are some slight problems with the cleanup campaign.
News of Barcelona's pollution is spreading quickly. While on a jet runway in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Fiji team received a message from the flight crew.
"They said something about the dead sheep," said Fiji's chef de mission, Mike Reid. "Our water is crystal-clear. We're in the middle of the Pacific. We're not used to this."
Bep DeWaard of Curacao, a Caribbean island, is also accustomed to sailing in water colored aquamarine, not tree-bark brown.
"We were prepared for the worst," she said. "We felt when we fell in, we would be sick. Well, we fell in, and we were not sick."
Kutlu Torunlar of Turkey did more than dive into the water. He cut his leg on the middle fin of his board, and doctors immediately gave him a tetanus shot.
"It was just in case," he said. "When I'm sailing in Istanbul, it is about this polluted. But here, I saw a fish. The fish was dead."
That could be a sign of trouble.
But things could be worse.
"Two years ago, we had a thousand floating rats on the beach," said Greg Johns of Australia.
"It's not what you expect for an Olympics," said Australia's Lars Klepich. "It's like sailing around your toilet bowl."