A year away, Rio 2016 Olympic organizers counting on sun and samba

A year away, Rio 2016 Olympic organizers counting on sun and samba

Published Jul. 28, 2015 5:51 p.m. ET


Rio de Janeiro conjures clear images of sun, samba and soccer. Organizers of the Olympics that start a year from now hope that's what people remember after the games — not images of polluted water, inefficient transportation and incomplete venues.

The Rio Olympics that start Aug. 5, 2016, follow last year's World Cup, which ended with mixed results.

A year of protests over lavish spending on soccer stadiums dissolved once the World Cup started. Fans from around the world embraced Brazil, and the stadiums looked ready enough on television even if many were still incomplete. Several have become underused ''white elephants'' that cost local governments millions to maintain.


Now come the Summer Games, which are more complex and put Brazil under scrutiny again.

Instead of a one-month tournament with 730 players, the 16-day Olympics feature 28 sports, 300 events and 10,500 athletes; almost all in a metropolitan area of about 12 million people.

Construction got off to a slow start. And so did ticket sales.

''If you compare our numbers with the classic London numbers, you're going to see that we got off a little late,'' said Mario Andrada, spokesman for the Rio Olympics. He called Brazilians ''last-minute people.''

''But there's no doubt in our minds that we are going to sell out the tickets.''

It will take years to know if the Olympics improved life for Cariocas, as Rio residents are known. And if so, who profited the most from spending $12 billion in public and private money.

The head of the local organizing committee Carlos Nuzman says Rio will be the Olympic city with the ''greatest transformation,'' surpassing Tokyo in 1964 and Barcelona in 1992.

An Olympics can change a city's reputation for good or bad.

Beijing showcased a rising power, but outsiders also glimpsed the control of an authoritarian state. Athens took a beating for preparations -- similar to Rio - and some of Greece's financial problems are linked Olympic spending.

At quick look at preparations with South America's first games opening Aug. 5, 2016.



The sailing and wind-surfing venue in Guanabara Bay, and the rowing and canoeing venue at the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, feature beautiful backdrops spoiled by sewage-filled water and floating debris. Rio officials promised cleaning the bay would be an Olympic legacy. But Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes has said that won't happen. A dramatic photo in the Rio newspaper O Globo recently showed trash wrapped around the tail of a dolphin in the bay.

Rio hopes to get by with stopgaps; a fleet of rubbish collection boats and barricades built where garbage gushes in from hilltop slums.

Some sailors competing in test events in Rio have called Guanabara Bay ''an open sewer,'' and many have tried to minimize contact with the water to avoid illnesses.

''I don't think I would go swimming in that lagoon,'' said Matt Smith, head of the World Rowing Federation.



The new Olympic golf course and the athletes' village will become luxury real estate develpments after the Olympics. The units at the golf course start at about $2 million. The projects involve public and private money, with much of the income going to the private developers.

Two largely government-funded developments are a subway extension from central Rio into Barra da Tijuca - the heart of the games - and rapid transit bus lines that reach many corners of the city. The subway line extension faces a tight deadline.

''The subway line is going to be delivered just before the games, so of course we're worried about that,'' said Sidney Levy, CEO of the organizing committee.

Part of the Olympic Park will serve afterward as Brazil's Olympic training center. A section of the Olympic Park will become residential space. Some of that space has yet to be vacated with residents in a slum called Vila Autodromo holding out for better compensation.



Street crime in Rio has spiked as drug traffickers in the city's slums - known as favelas - fight back against police and soldiers trying to ''pacify'' the neighborhoods. Muggings are increasing in the upscale south and west of the city, which will host most of the Olympics. A cyclist was recently stabbed to death at the Olympic rowing venue.

City officials are confident the problems won't leak over to the Olympics.

''The World Cup was organized without any major incidents, and we expect that this will be the same for the games,'' said Christophe Dubi, Olympic Games Executive Director.



President Dilma Rousseff, whose popularity has plunged as the country slides in recession, said recently she will be more involved in Olympic preparations. She's hoping the Olympics will improve the country's mood, and boost her poll numbers.

Levy says the games should inspire Brazilians, and they could use some.

State-run oil company Petrobras lost $2.1 billion in a kickback scheme that saw firm executives take bribes for awarding inflated contracts. In June, police arrested the CEOs of two of Brazil's largest construction companies, including the head of Odebrecht, which helped build many World Cup and Olympic venues.

Levy, the CEO, has repeated often that Rio is running clean games devoid of corruption.



A last-minute rush seems inevitable, and late work is sure to drive up costs.

Levy seems relaxed, particularly with the two biggest stadiums - both soccer facilities - already constructed.

''We're not building anything big,'' he said. ''We're not building a cathedral.''

A study by Said Business School at Oxford University of Olympic Games since 1960 showed each one had cost overruns.

''No other type of megaproject is this consistent regarding cost overrun,'' authors Bent Flyvberg and Allison Stewart wrote. ''Other project types are typically on budget from time to time, but not the Olympics.''