The International Olympic Committee has been playing with a lake of fire, and it’s everybody else who is going to get burned. You can feel it coming, can’t you? One of these days there’s going to be a catastrophe. The Olympics will be lucky to escape a large-scale disaster in Rio de Janeiro, and if it happens, we all will wonder why we didn’t do more to stop IOC officials from dragging us all down into their suck.
Half a million people will descend on Rio for the Summer Games, with a security force of just 85,000 to keep them safe from terrorists and roving bandits. Many of them are resentful, underpaid law enforcement officers with out-of-gas cars and grounded helicopters in the midst of the country’s worst economy since the 1930s who were already trying to cope with one of the most seething, crime-ridden cities on earth. In the past year, state hospitals have lacked basic supplies, and medical facilities have cut hours. So yes, by all means, let’s accept the IOC’s confident declaration issued Monday that “Rio is ready.” And just hope that if there’s real trouble, Mother Gaia or some invisible super hero Skyman will descend to save everyone should the hour turn darkest.
The IOC declares that Rio is ready because 44 test events have been held there — neglecting to mention that competitors in some of those events have been stricken by rashes and vomiting from the trash and raw human feces flowing into Guanabara Bay, the toilet bowl of Rio. Or that a group of Brazilian scientists this week detected a drug-resistant super-bacteria growing off the beaches that can cause meningitis and pulmonary, gastro and bloodstream infections — or that a dismembered foot recently washed up near the volleyball venue.
The IOC’s head inspector assures us cheerily that Rio “is ready to welcome the world,” to the epicenter of the mosquito-borne Zika virus outbreak, even though 150 scientists, doctors and researchers have called for the Games to be postponed or moved. The IOC has dismissed their concerns of a global epidemic, apparently because Rio’s views are divine. In their judgment, it’s worth injecting half a million foreign visitors and tourists into a viral urban petri dish. “I cannot imagine more spectacular backdrops for the world’s top sportsmen and women to showcase their talents to a watching world,” Nawal El Moutawakel said in a statement from the IOC on Monday. As for Zika, she mentioned as an aside that Rio’s “organizers are working to minimize the risk to visitors.”
How reassuring, since those organizers have been so very organized up to this point. They are so organized that in June a new railway lost power just a week after it opened. So organized that a $3 billion subway line isn’t finished yet and won’t be fully tested before it takes on Olympic passengers. So organized that a few weeks ago a newly built seaside bike path collapsed, killing two people, because the builders failed to take into account the fact that it might be struck by one of those surprising things that often come from the sea — a wave.
The truth is that a large-scale catastrophe is already happening in Rio, but it has been happening in slow motion over a period of years. The state is running a $6 billion deficit. These Olympics will cost it $4.6 billion, overrunning the projected budget by 51 percent.
There is only one reason the IOC doesn’t do the prudent reasonable thing and postpone or move the Rio Games: money. The right thing is to get a grip on Zika, finish venues properly without being fleeced at the mercy of contractors and launch an environmental cleanup. But too much cash and loss of face is at stake for sponsors and organizers. So they will double down on a risky bet and let it ride. “There is this element,” says Oliver Stuenkel, assistant professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, “that they will somehow wing it.”
The Olympics themselves are the catastrophe: an unwieldy cash-and-corruption-engorged monster that descends on the host country with a ravenous maw and leaves a swathe of human and economic casualties in its wake, from Athens to Beijing to London to Sochi to Rio, and presents a terrorism target that requires a massive security effort to defend against. At what point will world capitals stop participating in this folly? The answer may be sooner rather than later as more and more cities conclude it’s just not worth it.
According to a report issued this week by investigators from Oxford University’s business school, the Olympics over the past decade have cost an average of $8.9 billion , with an average cost overrun of 156 percent. Not another megaproject project in the world has a record of such irresponsible and suspiciously large cost overruns, no bridge, tunnel, or dam. The report notes, with emphasis, “All Games, without exception, have cost overrun. For no other type of megaproject is this the case.”
The report declares, “For a city and nation to decide to stage the Olympic Games is to decide to take on one of the most costly and financially most risky type of megaproject that exists, something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril.”
At least some of this financial risk is due to corruption. According to a report from the Institute of Modern Russia, about a third of Sochi’s budget was lost to graft. Two Rio government officials have been accused of — and denied — engaging in bribery schemes around Rio’s new $2.7 billion rail line. “There is general expectation as happens with all large projects that a lot of money will be lost on the way or will be stolen, and the long term benefits for the population will not necessarily be significant at all,” Stuenkel says.
This is the real Olympic game: cash. Ask yourself a question: Why doesn’t the IOC ever go back to cities that have built-and-paid-for Olympic structures?
The IOC counts on our romanticism to cover over the fiscal insanity and scandal. For two weeks, the gold medal performances and pretty screen shots on NBC will give us temporary amnesia. Only afterward will the real cost kick in, and it will hit Rio harder and longer than most places given its $6 billion deficit. For a comparison of the likely effect, just look to Athens, where the Olympic debt from 2004 deepened a financial crisis that still exists. “The high average cost overrun for the Games . . . should be cause for caution for anyone considering hosting the Games, and especially small or fragile economies with little capacity to absorb escalating costs and related debts,” the Oxford report concludes.
A Rio Olympics was a romantic idea when the city first bid on it, and the entire world fervently hopes that it is a safe celebration for the city. But the fact is that Brazilians themselves are apprehensive about hosting it given Rio’s “profound problems,” Stuenkel says. “The situation of the whole country is so dire that it’s difficult to openly and in an unrestrained way say, ‘I’m really looking forward to it.’ ”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.