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Place at Rio Games centre can lift sport

By Jeb Blount

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Organisers of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics wanted to put sailing, a sport often exiled to port venues far from the host city, at the centre of the games.

They have succeeded on many counts, but not quite as planned.

Concerns about sewage-polluted water and race-threatening floating debris have obscured the Olympic Regatta's stunning setting. The courses are among the first at an Olympics to allow large crowds to watch races directly from central neighbourhood beaches, surrounding buildings and hill-tops.

"The water issue has overshadowed the fact that Rio is a fantastic place to sail and a venue that will test the sailors," said Josh Adams, managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing in Litchfield, Connecticut. "Rio de Janeiro provides a natural amphitheatre for the sport of sailing."

Despite the water conditions, many sailors are already calling the mix of winds, waves and currents they will face between July 9 and 18 on three courses inside and two outside Guanabara Bay the most challenging and competitive ever seen at the Olympics.

In test regattas in Rio last year, few sailors managed to dominate their classes as light-wind specialists were forced to race in heavy wind courses and vice versa.

"At the Olympic level of the sport you have to be strong in a range of conditions and Rio will be the ultimate test of that," Adams said. "We've seen a range of wind speeds during the Brazilian winter. It will be a tactical challenge."

The regatta will feature 10 classes, five male, four female and one mixed group.

CLASS SEX TYPE

RS X MEN Windsurfer

RS X WOMEN Windsurfer

49er MEN Two-person dinghy, 2 sails + spinnaker

49erFX WOMEN Two-person dinghy, 2 sails + spinnaker

Laser MEN Two-person dinghy, 1 sail

Laser Radial WOMEN Two-person dinghy, 1 sail

Finn MEN Two-person dinghy (heavy) 1 sail

470 MEN Two-person dinghy, 2 sails + spinnaker

470 WOMEN Two-person dinghy, 2 sails + spinnaker

NACRA 17 MIXED Two-person catamaran, 2 sails + spinnaker

Each class will compete in 10 or 12 races plus a medal race. The medal race will be between the top 10 finishers in the first round of 10 or 12.

Organisers have said a seasonal lack of rain during Rio's southern hemisphere winter will prevent much of the sewage that pollutes local waters from being flushed into Guanabara Bay.

Efforts are also being made to reduce the plastic, trash, logs and other floating debris that could damage or slow boats, undermining fair competition.

"The water's not ideal but it's too late to worry," said Erik Heil, a 49er sailor with the German Olympic team who was treated for a flesh-eating bacteria in Germany last year after racing in Rio.

"Just about everything else is fantastic and I'm thrilled sailing will be at the centre of things for a change."

(Reporting by Jeb Blount; Editing by Rex Gowar)

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