RIO DE JANEIRO — The Olympic Games tend to leave behind artifacts, roadside reminders of what passed through town, elaborate structures such as the Bird’s Nest, the distinctive maze of metal in Beijing, or Munich’s Olympic Stadium, which had large canopies above one side that resembled the Alps.
“We’re not doing anything like that,” Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said bluntly.
The Summer Games are less than 10 months away, but already this much is clear: The Rio Olympics will not be a lavish or ostentatious affair. With Brazil in the midst of an economic crisis, the streamlined Games have forced Paes, city officials and the local organizing committee to tackle a two-pronged mission: stage a fiscally responsible event, and one that will still benefit the people of Rio long after the medals have been passed out and the athletes have left town.
Paes likes to tell the story of the weeks after Rio was awarded the Olympics in 2009. He traveled to Spain and sought out Pasqual Maragall, who was Barcelona’s mayor during the 1992 Games. “There are two types of Olympic Games,” Maragall told him. “One that uses the city, and one where the city uses the Games.”
Paes took the message to heart. He wants every aspect of this Olympic experience to have a lasting impact. While Paes had high hopes for Rio — cleaner water, less gridlock, improved city services — the timing couldn’t be worse, and the ambitious blueprints could amount to a costly pipe dream. Brazil is mired in a recession, and just last week the Rio organizing committee cut its budget by about 10 percent (some departments by as much as 30 percent) to make sure the government wouldn’t be on the hook for cost overruns.
The London Games cost more than $14 billion — still a fraction of Beijing’s reported $44 billion 2008 price tag — and Rio officials are trying to utilize public and private money to stay below that figure. Paes said that London’s Olympic Stadium alone used more public money than Rio 2016 will spend on all of its venues combined. “This is something that make us proud,” he said.
The total projected spending for the 2016 Games has fluctuated, but its initial bid to the International Olympic Committee called for more than $11 billion for venues, infrastructure and capital improvements and an additional $2.8 billion in operating costs. The latest cuts won’t impact the venues in which competitions will be held but will cause changes to the planned ticketing system, replace some planned permanent structures with tents and will trim costs associated with the Opening Ceremonies. Even before the cuts, the ceremony was slated to cost just 10 percent of London’s elaborate production four years ago, factoring in inflation.
“[We’re] not complaining because I guess I would be ashamed to waste what London spent in a country where we need sanitation, right, where education needs money,” said Fernando Meirelles, the acclaimed film director of “City of God” and “The Constant Gardner” who’s helping stage the Opening Ceremonies, last month. “So I’m very glad that we’re not spending money like crazy.”
Rio is currently a city under construction, as city officials and crews race against the clock to finish not just the venues but all the other projects linked to the Olympics. There are 27 “legacy projects” — included in the infrastructure costs — that are aimed at improving transportation, the environment, sanitation, education and culture, all at a cost of $8 billion. More than half of that is coming from city, state and federal governments.
Paes said officials had no choice but to seek out private money, as Brazilians likely would have had a difficult time accepting the notion of public money being used on something such as golf or yet another soccer stadium.
“If [heavy spending] does not go in Boston, can you imagine what happens in Rio?” Paes said.
While there were some concerns over venue construction last spring, city and Rio 2016 officials voiced confidence in their preparations on a recent tour. Sixteen of the 30 Olympic venues already existed and required only renovation or refurbishing. Every Olympic host since Barcelona 23 years ago has built a new stadium in which to stage the Opening Ceremonies, but Rio has opted to use the Maracana, a 65-year-old soccer stadium, and station track-and-field events in a renovated Joao Havelange Olympic Stadium.
Across town in Barra da Tijuca, a fast-growing western suburb, Olympic Park is filled with cranes and bulldozers, the Olympic decor and finishing touches still months away. Seven of the nine venues here are brand new, and two will be temporary. The Arena of the Future, which will host handball during the Olympics and goalball during the Paralympics, will be disassembled and used to build four new schools, and pieces of the Aquatic Stadium eventually will be turned into multi-purpose sports centers.
This development comes at a cost for some residents, though. Just outside the northwest corner of the park is Vila Autodromo, a small favela whose roughly built brick and concrete houses contrast vividly with the upmarket condominiums all around. According to some estimates, some 60,000 people have been removed from favelas since Rio was awarded the Olympics in 2009. Critics say the real Olympic winners will be Barra de Tijuca’s real estate developers, some of whom helped fund Paes’s 2012 election campaign.
Many houses in Vila Autodromo have already been demolished. On a recent morning, one stood sliced in half, leaving a first-floor bathroom exposed to the air. Graffiti covered the ruins of others. “Not everyone has a price” was scrawled on a wall. José Lana, 45, did. His family was moving that day after accepting a compensation payment of $160,000 and a two-bedroom apartment in a government housing complex a mile or so away.
“You can resist up to a point,” he said, “but not any more.”
To the south of Olympic Park is another venue that Rio officials hope sees use after the Games. The Olympic Golf Course is a pristine links-style course that looks like it dropped from the sky on a plot of undeveloped land. The par-71, 7,350-yard course was “on some days a nightmare and others a pleasure,” said Neil Cleverly, the course superintendent.
Golf is making its return to the Olympics after a 112-year absence. The sport barely exists in Rio, and its two private courses exclusively serve the rich. Rio officials plan to eventually make the Olympic course public in the hopes that the Games stir up interest in the sport, particularly among the city’s youth.
“If we don’t, it’s all for nothing,” Cleverly said.
While construction on the venues has been underway for several months, the timeline on some of the infrastructure and “legacy” projects is unknown. Many have been pushed into 2016, making it doubtful they’ll all be finished by the time the Olympics roll into town. Already authorities have abandoned hopes of hitting their target of treating 80 percent of the sewage flowing into the Guanabara Bay, where sailing races will take place.
“It’s not fair to come here and think, ‘Okay, the Olympics have to solve all the problems,’ ” Paes warned. “That was never the deal. We never said that. We said we want the Olympics to make our city better. But this is a country — especially big cities like Rio, Sao Paulo — we still have a long, long, long, long, long way to go.”
The Rio mayor hopes the Games can revitalize a suburb called Deodoro, a gritty, outlying community where a military base is being converted into a second Olympic hub. One of Rio’s most ambitious legacy projects is underway here: a plan to treat the sewage of 1.7 million people across a huge area of West Rio, most of whom currently flush their waste directly into drains used for rainwater.
Flavio de Souza, 16, lives just outside Deodoro’s Olympic hub with his mother and siblings. He said they welcome the works to repave the roads and sidewalk, in addition to plans for a family clinic, but added that street crime had increased in the neighborhood since the construction began.
“There is a good side,” de Souza said of the neighborhood’s transformation, “and another that is bad.”
Paes talks a lot about the long term, about trying to make sure the impact of the Summer Games extends far beyond the 15 days of competition next summer. He’s careful with his words when asked how the Games might differ in that sense from the 2014 World Cup, which ran over budget and left behind expensive stadiums with no tenants.
But key “legacy” transport projects, such as a new subway and bus rapid-transit line to Barra, plus a tram that will circulate a renovated port area, won’t be ready until next year. Rio still has much to deliver.
“I don’t think the World Cup changed the way you gringos think about Brazil, you know,” Paes said. “It’s like, ‘These guys, they throw great parties, but the stadiums, they start with 10 [and] when they were ready they cost 20 or 30 — two or three times higher.’ There’s some white elephants that are not being used. There’s lots of things that took awhile to get ready.
“When you get a thing like the World Cup or the Olympics,” he continued, “you need to use it for something else. . . . If you don’t change your city, if you don’t change the perspective that people have of you, it’s not worth [it].”