One year to Rio 2016: Troubled waters for Brazil

Translation of blog piece for BBC Russian

In exactly a year’s time, the world’s biggest sporting event – the Olympics – will kick off in Brazil’s Marvellous City, in what is South America’s first chance to host the unrivalled celebration of sport.

Despite Brazil’s experience in hosting major sporting events, the numbers for Rio 2016 are still daunting:

Nearly 11,000 athletics from 205 National Olympic Committees will be taking part in 19 days of competitions in 33 venues across four city clusters.

Some 3,200 referees and their assistants will make sure everyone is playing fair as athletes vie for 306 medals up for grabs across 42 sports, this time also including golf and rugby.

The Paralympics will also follow in September 2016, with 4,350 athletes and 23 sports.

And that’s before you consider the hundreds of thousands of tourists and the five-billion-strong global TV audience.

The numbers are intimidating enough, but then consider that the Olympics will be held just two years after a World Cup that severely tested Brazil’s resolve – it was a tournament plagued by fears over protests sparked by public outrage at the cost of the events and FIFA profiteering on the back of woefully-underfunded public services, and concerns that key venues and promised infrastructure wouldn’t be ready in time.

Brazil is still sore from its calamitous 7-1 defeat in the semifinals, but the World Cup did eventually run smoothly. However, many of the promised infrastructure projects were not completed on time, scaled back or scrapped altogether.

For this reason, the government has been keen to make clear that projects pegged to the Olympics are ones that are for Brazil long term – urging ordinary Brazilians not to worry themselves over missed deadlines and be reassured that the city’s Olympic legacy will, eventually, be achieved.

For now, the only protests currently taking to Brazil’s streets are against government corruption: anti-Olympic sentiment has all but petered out. Perhaps it’s because the Olympics are less significant to Brazilians than other sporting events almost inevitably focused on football. Perhaps it’s because many of the sports will be alien to the average Brazilian. Perhaps people here are just tired of protesting and are resigned to the fact that the event will probably go ahead anyway.

In terms of international pressure, Brazil won’t be keen to hear more criticism, particularly after the haranguing it got in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup. To stave off that negativity, officials have been giving updates on the pace of progress with Olympic preparations.

The Maracanã cluster, including the legendary football stadium where the Olympic torch will arrive on August 5 next year after a 20,000-kilometre journey around Brazil, is virtually ready, as it only requires small adjustments from recent billion-real reformations for the World Cup.

The temporary beach venue in Copacabana will be put up shortly before the Games.

The biggest cluster and main Olympic venue – the Barra Olympic Park – is now 86% ready, according to officials. Of greater concern is the Deodoro cluster, where the Hockey Centre is only 51% ready and the Aquatics Centre is only 32% finished.

That said, as with the World Cup, the venues will – we’re assured – be completed on time. They simply have to be. At least the basics. Things might be a little rough around the edges and there may be last-minute scrabbles and pared-back plans, but the sites will function and the Olympics will go ahead.

Whether visitors will be able to find accommodation and negotiate Rio is another thing.

The authorities will also be looking to make sure a new wave of protests does not mar the build-up to the event, as happened with the World Cup. And one major factor will help them: the Olympics are far more contained, almost completely taking place in Rio, rather than 12 cities across the continent-sized country.

Although there have been isolated, fierce protests regarding the eviction of vulnerable communities when a small number of favelas were bulldozed to make way for Olympic infrastructure, this is not universal enough a problem to capture wider imaginations.

Social movements will try to ratchet up the pressure as the event approaches but it is unlikely to spark mass protests.

However, political corruption and the lacklustre state of the economy in Brazil, which many expect will contract by well over 1% this year, could yet prove to be a sticking point: people may still take umbrage at the Games’ 40-billion-real price tag ($11.5 billion at today’s rate), as unemployment is now picking up and salaries are falling.

But beyond the threat of protests, there is a more immediate problem – and one that there is no chance of rectifying in time for next August’s event.

Recent analysis of the waters have shown that athletes will be expected to swim and sail in waters with horrifying levels of viral contamination.

Untreated human waste flowing freely into the city’s bays and lagoons means the waterways contain hideously high levels of viruses and bacteria. Some athletes training in Rio have already reportedly fallen ill.

Although the city is slowly changing the situation, many of the favelas – home to a quarter of Rio’s seven-million-strong population – are not plumbed into waste water infrastructure.

Despite reassurances from local authorities that waters will be safe for the Games, these first independent and comprehensive tests by the Associate Press revealed virus contamination at 1.7 million times the level considered hazardous in the US in certain locations checked in Rio.

Many believe Brazil bit off more than it could chew with both the World Cup and the Olympics, but the country would very much like to prove them wrong.

It would also mean a lot to the country’s embattled president, Dilma Rousseff – currently “enjoying” approval ratings of just 8% due to the country’s flagging economy and a vast corruption scandal involving members of her government.

Now entering the final strait, it feels as if Brazil is perhaps looking forward to time out of the international spotlight, hoping Rio’s festered waters will not be the world’s lasting memory of its historic Olympic Games.

Either way, Rio is running out of time.

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