Against the odds, Brazil pulled off a successful World Cup. Stadiums were ready, if only just. Huge protests failed to materialize. Airports functioned, and the hospitality of the Brazilian people enchanted foreigners. But can the country do the same for the 2016 Summer Olympics?
This is a significantly more complicated event: over 10,500 athletes from 200 nations competing in 28 sports, all in one city — followed days later by the Paralympic Games. But construction work is running late. Sewage fouls Guanabara Bay, where sailing events will be staged. Traffic and logistics are a concern. Already, there are complaints that the new facilities will mainly benefit Rio’s wealthier areas.
“There are 28 world championships at the same time, in the same city,” said Bruno Souza, a former professional handball player who until recently worked on the Olympic Village. He is now secretary of sports for Niteroi, a city just across the bay from Rio.
Souza competed in both the Athens and Beijing Olympic games for Brazil. Beijing was a smooth-running triumph. But Athens was plagued by problems and was so expensive that the cost was even blamed by some for Greece’s subsequent economic crash.
“The Games in Rio de Janeiro are very similar to Athens,” Souza said.
He said athletes may face delays in getting to venues through Rio’s snarled traffic, despite being aboard buses in special Olympic lanes, and it could be a struggle to even wash all the towels for the 18,000 people staying in the Olympic Village.
“I am very scared of the logistics, as much the logistics of transport as the logistics of providing services,” he said.
Brazilian officials are confident things will go well. President Dilma Rousseff told reporters Friday that the World Cup’s success “was a big lesson for us,” showing that “Brazil is a country with the capacity to organize.”
But Brazil is also a country that suffers from a relaxed attitude about deadlines and an occasional lack of attention to detail. That was obvious on July 3, when Rio’s city hall organized an event to celebrate the beginning of a project to create a venue for 11 Olympic sports — including show jumping, shooting and mountain biking — at an army base in Deodoro, North Rio.
The construction work was starting three years later than planned. A photo op in which politicians climbed on an excavator backfired because the sun was directly behind them, blinding rows of photographers and spoiling the shot.
“We have to make a big effort to meet the schedule, to meet the deadlines, because time is an asset that you cannot replace when it is lost,” Minister of Sports Aldo Rebelo told a shoving mass of reporters after descending from the excavator.
A visit to the Deodoro facilities scheduled to last 40 minutes took two hours, in part because the bus got stuck in traffic. Officials explained how facilities built at the army base for the 2007 Pan American Games will be used. A show-jumping arena had just one stand, with a capacity for 1,200. Temporary structures will increase that to 14,000, officials said.
In April, John Coates, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice president, described Rio preparations as “the worst I have experienced.” He later said Rio would deliver an “excellent” Olympic Games. After an IOC Coordination Commission visit in March, a special task force was set up to speed things along. The IOC’s executive director, Gilbert Felli, was appointed as special troubleshooter for Rio.
A successful World Cup has taken some of the pressure off Brazil. “It remains tense, very tense, but we should look with more optimism,” Felli told the Associated Press this month.
Rio 2016 Chief Operations Officer Leonardo Gryner said work at Deodoro had been held up by a cumbersome decision-making process involving the army, the federal government and the city — but that the new task force had resolved the problem. “Together we managed to expedite the process, fast-track and make things happen,” Gryner said in an interview.
Gryner was shown aerial photographs taken June 26 of the Olympic Park, which is being built in the upscale Rio suburb of Barra de Tijuca. Most of the events will be held there. Apart from the Olympic stadium, which is an existing concert arena, and a swimming complex, the entire site was earthworks. The skeleton of one new building, the International Broadcast Center, was emerging from the mud.
Gryner said that work was about 38 percent finished when the photo was taken and that extensive underground infrastructure, such as water and sewage pipes, had been completed. “Now the walls are coming up very quick because the underground work is finished,” he said.
Work at the Olympic Village, beside the Olympic Park on a scenic lagoon, is more advanced — 31 apartment towers are already standing. A luxury showroom demonstrates the charms of the high-end apartments being built there; they are to be sold privately after the Games.
The Ilha Pura company is spending $1.8 billion on the development with financing from a government-owned bank, said its director general, Mauricio Lopes. The Rio city government is paying for access roads.
The project has raised concerns about what legacy the Games will leave Rio, a city with major housing shortages where 22 percent of the 6 million residents live in favelas, or slums.
For London’s Olympic Games, $2 billion in public money was spent building an Olympic Village, and $1.4 billion was later recouped by selling the apartments to two property companies. Now 49 percent of the 2,818 apartments in the village have discounted rents or are available through shared ownership plans for those with lower incomes.
All of Ilha Pura’s 3,604 apartments, in contrast, will be sold at market rates.
Rio is building three bus rapid-transit lines for the Olympics, each of which will terminate in Barra. Sections of two lines are operating. The area is a real-estate hot spot but is time-consuming to access by road. The bus lines and expanded subway will change that. “When this transport is functioning, this will attract more people,” Lopes said.
“We are benefiting one of the wealthiest parts of the city,” said Christopher Gaffney, a professor of architecture and urbanism at the Federal University of Niteroi.
Gryner argued that Deodoro, situated in Rio’s much poorer, neglected North Zone, will also benefit. “This area [Deodoro] is the one which will grow,” he said.
There were mass protests in Brazilian cities in 2013 over the $11 billion World Cup. But the nation welcomed hundreds of thousands of foreigners during the event. Rousseff said Friday that Brazil needed to wake up to its place in a bigger world.
“Brazil has to realize domestically that it is not an island,” she said. The Games will help this, but at significant cost. A total of $16 billion has been budgeted so far.