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Rio’s preparation for 2016 Olympics faces crisis
In Rio de Janeiro’s Deodoro complex, at present a military training camp to the west of the city, there is nothing to indicate that in just under 850 days this will be one of the main venues for the Olympic Games.Building has yet to start and the project is so far behind schedule that soldiers who live at the base have not even heard of it. “Olympics? No, not here – you must have got the wrong place,” shouts one soldier out of his truck, looking in bemusement at his colleagues.
Brazil has endured some well-publicised struggles to get ready for the football World Cup this June, but an even bigger crisis is emerging over Rio’s lack of preparation for the 2016 Olympics.
Last week, the International Olympic Committee announced a series of emergency measures, including the creation of a “high-level decision-making body”, to speed up the preparations as other sports federations call for events to be relocated to alternative cities.
Francesco Ricci Bitti, head of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations – an umbrella group for several governing sports organisations – has branded it “the most critical situation” for the games in at least two decades.
In 2009, when Rio won the bid to become the first South American city to host the Olympics, the IOC’s decision was celebrated as a coming-of-age moment – proof of the country’s new status on the world stage. Only two years earlier, Brazil had been named the host nation for the 2014 Fifa World Cup.
However, a string of delays and growing resentment among Brazilians over the cost of these sporting extravaganzas have turned them into a lightning rod for protests at home – and a focus for those abroad on the country’s institutional weaknesses. Overspending on the World Cup was one of the many causes of the mass protests that erupted across the country last June.
Although hosting the Olympics should be easier than the World Cup – it involves only one city rather than 12 – it may in fact prove more problematic, says Rafael Alcadipani, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, an academic institution.
“Just as Brazil’s attention turns to the Olympics, all the scandals and the full cost of the World Cup will start to become public,” he says. “There will already be revulsion over how much was spent on the stadiums and we will have to spend more on the Olympics, so it could be an even more difficult situation,” says Mr Alcadipani.
Hosting this type of mega event just doesn’t make much sense any more
– Prof Rafael Alcadipani, Getulio Vargas Foundation
This week Rio announced the games will cost just over R$36bn ($16bn), up from an initial estimate of R$28bn, although part of this will be paid for by the private sector. But Brazil’s economic outlook has changed drastically since the country won the Olympics bid. After expanding at a rate of 7.5 per cent in 2010, it is expected to grow less than the UK and the US this year.
“Hosting this type of mega event just doesn’t make much sense any more,” said Mr Alcadipani.
While the sporting events are proving far less popular than Brazil’s ruling Workers’ party had hoped, they are also doing little to improve the country’s international image.
Aside from concerns over Deodoro – one of Rio’s four Olympic venues, which will host at least seven sports – there has also been complaints over pollution in the city’s Guanabara Bay, the location of the sailing events.
Sewage and rubbish flow directly into the bay from nearby favelas, posing a health risk for athletes and making the water difficult to navigate.
In a post entitled “Welcome to the dump that is Rio”, the German sailing team has posted pictures of the floating garbage on their blog, also complaining of difficulties in mapping surface currents.
The root problem is an old one in Brazil – a cultural lack of forward planning, made worse by labyrinthine bureaucracy and the complex structure of government.
The government’s Clean Guanabara Plan, which brings together 12 previous initiatives to clean 80 per cent of the bay by 2016, was only announced last year.
Similarly, Rio’s municipal government was only put in charge of the Deodoro development project in November after it was passed down from the state government, which initially took it over from the federal government.
The construction work was finally put out to tender on April 17 and will begin before December – more than five years since Rio won the bid to host the Olympics.
Strikes by workers at Rio’s main Olympic Park and a lack of qualified labour have created more delays.
Construction companies are also likely to take advantage of these inefficiencies, stalling further in the hope of charging higher rates for emergency contracts, says Prof Alcadipani. “It is not in any of their interests to deliver a project on time,” he says.
While Brazil’s difficulties may have served as a warning to the IOC and Fifa, football’s ruling body, about the risks of their forays into emerging markets, the delays have come as no surprise to Brazilians themselves, says Eduardo Padilha at Insper business school.
“People here know that things never happen as they are supposed to – it is a structural problem that is not easily fixed,” he says. “Developing countries don’t just suddenly become developed countries.”