Rio 2016: Is Brazil ready for the Olympics?

Wyre Davies
Rio de Janeiro correspondent

image copyrightEPA
image captionBrazil is hoping to show the world it can successfully stage a global sporting mega-event

Locals in Rio de Janeiro sometimes refer to their city as "a cidade maravilhosa" - "the marvellous city".

With its forest-clad mountains, famous long beaches and diverse communities living cheek-by-jowl, there has probably never been a more stunning backdrop for an Olympic Games.

Those who backed its bid for the 2016 Olympics against much more "established" and "stable" venues in the northern hemisphere say Rio is now a city transformed.


A city that had almost been in a state of decay, since it lost its status as capital of Brazil in 1960, has been reborn and rediscovered its pride.

image copyrightAP
image captionConcerns about Rio's extraordinarily high levels of crime are allayed by the presence of 85,000 soldiers on the streets
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image captionSupporters of the Games such as Rio de Janeiro's Mayor Eduardo Paes say the city has been transformed
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image captionNew museums such as the Museum of Tomorrow (pictured) have appeared along with urban light rail and sports venues in recent years

Cheerleader-in-chief for Rio is its charismatic and controversial mayor, Eduardo Paes.

I've met him many times over the last three years and have always been struck by his ability to defend the sometimes questionable decisions made in putting on the 2016 Olympic Games.

Mr Paes' strongest argument is that much of the regeneration in areas like Rio's old port zone would simply not have happened had it not been for the impetus of the Olympics.

New museums, urban light rail and sports venues have appeared in recent years. The odd project has missed the Olympic deadline but in time-honoured Brazilian fashion, most work is being finished before Friday's opening ceremony and the arrival of more than half a million tourists.

Indeed, in those areas where tourists congregate there is a palpable sense of anticipation that the Games are almost upon us.

Concerns about Rio's extraordinarily high levels of crime are allayed by the presence of 85,000 soldiers and police on the streets.

The new metro line linking the hotel zone to the main Olympic Park has just been inaugurated and, for the duration of the Games, will only be used by Olympic officials, journalists and those with tickets for the events.

It's been tight but all is just about coming together - at least for the competitors, visitors and the press.

'Going to be a party'

But what about the locals?

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image captionGuanabara Bay is a stinking mass of sewage, household rubbish and industrial pollutants
image captionThe Olympics have provided a clear social dividend, say officials such as Tania Braga (above)
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image captionMost sporting venues are complete despite the criticism

It's an almost criminal abrogation of responsibility, say many critics including Christopher Gaffney, now a professor of urban planning at Zurich University but a long-time student of and specialist on big projects in Brazil.

"It's going to be a party, just like the World Cup was, and people will say they pulled it off," Prof Gaffney tells me.

"Millions of the city's residents live in favelas that have had no improvement, so when we see the equivalent of $15bn (£11.3bn) being spent on the Olympics, that money should have been directed to attend the basic needs of the citizens of Rio."

Rio 2016 organisers and supporters, like Mr Paes, are quick to counter. Their strongest defence is that Rio has spent much less public money than either London or Beijing to put on the Games.

There has, instead, been a heavier reliance on private spending by big construction firms that stand to make substantial profits from Olympic spaces and buildings once the Games are over.

Olympic officials often say the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should not be compared to Fifa, the governing body of world football.

Fifa walked away from Brazil with a reported $4bn profit from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, accused of leaving little behind in tangible benefits.

Lofty commitments

With the Olympics, there is a clear social dividend, say officials like Tania Braga, the Head of Legacy and Sustainability at Rio 2016.

image copyrightEPA
image captionIt is open to debate whether ordinary citizens of Rio will benefit from the Games
image captionChristopher Gaffney argues that money spent on the Olympics should have been directed to attend to the basic needs of the citizens of Rio

"In the Deodoro area (where some Olympic events are located), they now get access to basic sanitation, clean water and better public transport - many things that these poorer areas didn't have before the Games," says Ms Braga.

There probably isn't an Olympic city that, somewhere along the line, hasn't come up short in delivering some of the lofty commitments it made during the bid process.

But in some areas Rio has failed miserably.

Guanabara Bay is the huge, wineglass-shaped lagoon around which this "marvellous city" is built. Tales, some from not that many years ago, talk of its abundant marine life and stunning scenery.

Today the Bay is a stinking mass of sewage, household rubbish and industrial pollutants.

Treating 80% of the sewage that enters the bay, from the favelas, towns and industries that feed into its many tributaries, was a key Rio pledge when it won the right to host the Games.

Brazil, a technologically gifted nation, certainly had the expertise and finances to meet the challenge.

The impetus was there too because surely Rio wouldn't allow hundreds of the world's top Olympic yachtsmen and women to compete in its mucky, stinking waters?

City and state officials admit that they have failed to keep this key promise. They claim to be treating about 50% of the sewage, whereas several scientists who monitor the water quality daily say the real figure is about 20%.

Corruption, a worsening economic situation and poor political leadership mean the waters are still teeming with sewage, bacteria and viruses harmful to humans.

It's a travesty that could have an impact on Olympic sailors in coming weeks but, more importantly, on the city's residents for years to come.

While the failure to clean Guanabara Bay is an embarrassment to Rio's politicians, whose responsibility it remains, the IOC and Rio 2016 organisers say their obligations have been met and the Games are ready.

Maybe, as a fellow correspondent says, we should "cut Brazil some slack". After all, the sporting venues are complete and while many of the country's problems will remain after the visitors have gone, Brazilians love sport and they love a party.

And, despite everything, for the second time in two years, Brazil is hoping to show the world it can successfully stage a global sporting mega-event.

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