Yesterday, Olympic organizers held a press conference, enthusiastically reassuring members of the press that everything is fine just a month before the opening ceremony. ”[The Games] will be a maximum success in this beautiful city of ours,” said Rio 2016 president Arthur Nuzman. He had good reason to seek to assuage outsiders’ concerns: in the 24 hours preceding the event, local police staged a protest at the airport, saying they are unable to protect visitors since they haven’t been paid in months, while Rio mayor Eduardo Paes told CNN that the state government’s security efforts had been “terrible.”
Despite countless setbacks and even some demands to move or cancel the Games, the controversial Rio 2016 Olympics are on and have reached the home stretch. It’s easy for foreign audiences to look at all the mishaps and assume the Olympics will be a disaster. But if Rio’s history with big events teaches us anything, it’s that the city knows how to entertain, despite lingering, deeply-entrenched issues that are sure to remain after the international spotlight comes and goes.
Last-minute construction, failed environmental promises, and the State’s financial calamity
As we get down to the wire, the Rio Olympics are not exactly making a graceful entrance. Finishing touches on construction projects are going literally day and night. Residents in Copacabana, near the incomplete Beach Volleyball stadium, were woken on Sunday by the sound of a jackhammer, which persisted from 11:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m.
“It was the middle of the night! It was really loud and very inconvenient,” said Andrea Lima, 44, who lives about 100 feet from where the jackhammer was making way for Olympic signage.
“Maybe they’re doing it at nighttime on purpose, so that people don’t see them rushing to get everything in order last minute,” she speculated.
Other key construction projects are lagging, like a metro extension project, which will bypass some of Rio’s most congested roads, and a rapid bus line that runs from the airport to the Olympic Park. Despite the public’s mounting doubt, authorities have guaranteed that the metro extension will be ready, just four days before the Games start.
“I’m not even sure they’ll be able to open it for the Olympics,” said Olavo Toledo, a resident of the Barra da Tijuca region of Rio—host to the main Olympic site. “It seems like it’s still missing a lot to be complete,” he added. Toledo also reported that the construction has been unorganized and disruptive to the traffic in the region for years, but believes it’s gotten worse since the beginning of the year in the rush to finish.
The Rio 2016 sailing venue, on the other hand, will miss its mark when August 5 rolls around. Rio’s beautiful Guanabara Bay may boast an ideal backdrop for a sailing competition, but it’s also the destination for the majority of the metropolitan region’s raw sewage. Athletes have been arriving over the last few months and some sailors have already gotten sick, like the German sailor Erik Heil who fell ill during a test event last year.
After the Rio state Environmental Secretary admitted that their promise to clean 80% of pollutants in the bay was “not going to happen” in January 2015, the governing body of sailing, ISAF, called for the venue to be moved, but planners held their ground, giving athletes no other choice but to keep their mouths shut and bear the waters.
On top of the delayed construction and the polluted bay, the Rio de Janeiro State government recently declared a financial “calamity,” amid a global slump in oil prices, which the Rio economy heavily relies on. As a result, the state asked for and was granted a 2.9 billion reais ($830 million) bailout from the federal government to cover security and other operational costs during the Games.
Public services administered by the state, including the police force, public schools and hospitals, are suffering budget cuts and even closures. Leaving Rio’s international airport, there’s a message scribbled on an overpass: “Welcome, we don’t have hospitals.” Police are also using the international airport to protest their delayed salaries, warning visitors, “Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.” Police forces reportedly don’t have gasoline for patrol cars and some even have said they need donations for basic office supplies, like papers, pens and cleaning materials.
Government statistics released last week showed an alarming rise in violence. Street robberies are up by 43 percent compared to the same month last year, while the number of civilians killed by police has risen by 91 percent in the same period. Among the victims of petty crime in recent months are Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
“The biggest risk for visitors to the Olympics? I think it’s street crime,” said Dr. Ana Freitas, an infectologist in São Paulo, during an interview about Zika virus and flu outbreaks in early June.
Deeper issues beyond the Olympics
Rio 2016 is long past the point of no return, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen failed legacy promises and last minute construction for a mega-event in Brazil — just a little over two years ago in the lead-up to the World Cup, locals were furious with overspending on white-elephant stadiums, while legacy projects like a high-speed train from Rio to São Paulo were abandoned. But, even with some scaffolding still showing, the event itself was considered a “success.”
“I believe that the government will unite forces in order to guarantee what they call success, like they did with the World Cup two years ago,” said Cecília Olliveira, a public security researcher who recently launched an app with Amnesty International called Fogo Cruzado (Crossfire, in English) that maps shootings throughout Rio through user collaboration.
“I think the police will strongly repress protests, of which there should be many throughout the city, like they did in 2014,” she said. Olliveira also pointed out that the military may occupy six favelas that are located near areas where tourists will pass.
“Residents [of the favelas that will be occupied] are worried about possible violations of their rights,” she said, citing another Rio favela, Maré, which had a “terrible” experience with military occupation in 2014.
Rio’s more complex problems — extreme violence in favelas and the poor periphery, lack of sanitation infrastructure, and the state’s financial woes and the consequentially crippled police force and strained public schools and hospitals — are likely to remain after the Games have come and gone in the three-week whirlwind.
“I don’t believe in any legacy, or barely any legacy. The current situation in the state is chaos… The truth is that I’m afraid for the future of the city and its non-wealthy residents,” Olliveira concluded.