Future of Rio Olympic golf course unclear after hearing

The site of the Rio 2016 Olympic golf course in Barra from last November. 

Buda Mendes/Getty Images


The future of the golf course under construction for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 was unclear Wednesday after the city of Rio and the course developer — both defendants in a lawsuit — failed to agree to changes proposed by a Brazilian court.

Rio judge Eduardo Klausner said he would rule on the fate of the course unless the defendants and a public prosecutor returned with a compromise. The judge said work could continue, but new ground could not be unearthed on a course that is being carved out of a nature reserve.

The defendants offered to alter three holes of the layout, which is behind schedule and facing tight deadlines. The public prosecutor, who alleges the city and the developer have violated environmental laws, asked the developer to yield a large parcel of land being earmarked for luxury apartments.

Golf is returning to the Olympics after a 112-year absence. But legal challenges, disputes over land ownership and questions regarding the course’s impact on a fragile ecosystem, have caused delays dating back almost five years.

The dispute again raises questions about preparations for the Rio Games, which seem to be moving quicker in recent months after well-publicized slowdowns and public criticism from International Olympic Committee members.

Both sides told the judge it would not take long to return to his chambers with their final proposals. It was not clear how long this might take, and the judge did not specify a deadline.

"We have made a commitment to have the Olympics. That’s a fact," Klausner said. "At the same time we have an interest in preserving the nature there. What was lost was lost, now we need a solution that will attend to both demands."


He called the redesign of the three holes "very viable."

Marcus Leal, a public prosecutor, said he was concerned about the impact on native flora and fauna.

"We want to make sure that the area is preserved in the long term," he said. "Having a golf course there doesn’t mean that the local vegetation is being protected."

Mariana Bruce, speaking for the activist group "Golf for Whom?" called the defendants’ proposals "shameful."

"Prosecutors and society should not accept it," she said. "If the argument is that they can’t change anything because most of the course is already there, then it opens a precedent to environmental crimes everywhere. That shouldn’t be a defense."

The public prosecutor alleges the city violated environmental rules in authorizing the course.

Some have questioned the need to build a new course for the Olympics. At least one other venue in the Rio area, the Itanhanga Golf Club, could have been suitable. It has hosted the European Tour, and a U.S. LPGA Tour event and club officials were optimistic a few years ago they would land the Olympics.

The course is being built on some of the most expensive real estate in Barra da Tijuca, the Rio suburb that will host two-thirds of the Olympic events.

A key developer in the project, Pasquale Mauro, is one of the largest landowners in the region. Plans call for the building of 160 high-end apartments that are selling for between $2.5 and $7 million. Several penthouses in the complex will be more expensive, with critics saying the development is about real estate — not golf.

The golf course is to be public after the Olympics, but the city has not said how it will be managed — or exactly how long it will remain public. Plans call for it to be a center of teaching golf in Brazil, which has few players, little tradition and is played mostly by the very wealthy.