Zika. Political coups. Super germs. A state of calamity. Sounds like a dystopian novel – or just daily life in Rio de Janeiro as it prepares to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. As catastrophic as the situation in Rio right now may seem, anxiety over the upcoming Olympics is par for the course for every city hosting the event (remember #SochiProblems?), and most concerns have been forgotten as the focus returned to medal counts. But the question must still be asked: will the first South American city to host the Olympics pull it off, or will it all go down in flames?
Perhaps the most anxiety over the preparations for Rio 2016 has been reserved for the construction and revitalization of the Olympic venues. One of the most controversial construction sites was the Velodrome in Olympic Park, which finally was able to stage a test run last month, following last-minute changes in construction companies.
But controversy swirled not just around fears that the venues would be finished in time, but also due to the fact that many longtime residents were displaced to make room for Olympic sites. Some of those forced out of their homes due to construction include residents of the Vila Autódromo favela, who attempted to protest their relocation.
Still under construction is the beach volleyball stadium in Copacabana. And yes that’s the same venue a mutilated corpse washed up in front of a few months ago.
The Australian delegation sounded the alarm last week when it decided to leave the Olympic village and headed to a hotel due to “poor living” conditions in the Olympic quarters.
Like most Olympic bids, Rio’s plans for the Summer Games came with the promise of improved public transportation, with much of the infrastructure funneled to Zona Oeste. And the city has successfully implemented some of those promises: the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system launched the TransOeste and TransCarioca lines all the way back in 2012 and 2014, respectively, improving transportation to Zona Oeste. The BRT TransOlímpica line, which connects Olympic sites Barra da Tijuca and Deodoro, was inaugurated this month.
Rio faced a blow earlier this year however when a wave struck a newly constructed bike path, causing it to partially collapse and kill two people. While the beachfront bike path connecting Leblon to Zona Oeste wasn’t part of the Olympics in any official capacity, its construction was intended to link multiple zones of the city in anticipation of the Games.
A huge part of that transportation promise though was a new metro line to connect Barra da Tijuca in Zona Oeste to the city’s south zone. Line 4 is still under construction, but allegedly will open for limited service just days before the opening ceremony.
The question of safety has become even more pertinent in light of the terror attacks in Nice, but as The Bubble recently addressed, the threat of terrorism is new ground for Brazil. But while local intelligence services might have little experience with terrorism, the Olympics will be under the watch of security forces from just about every country in the world; French intelligence recently thwarted plans to attack French participants at the Olympics.
But even if terrorism is a threat, Olympic attendees will still have to deal with the everyday reality of petty crime and violence in Rio. But there are conflicting reports as to how safe they should feel. Local police officers have staged protests at Rio’s international airports, holding signs reading, “Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.” Carlos Arthur Nuzman, president of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, insists however that the games “will be a maximum success in this beautiful city of ours.”
These days, armed Brazilian soldiers are patrolling tourist-heavy areas like Copacabana, which will also be home to many Olympic venues. Even with the armed soldiers on the streets, criminals managed to take one of Rio’s main traffic tunnels this weekend and virtually rob everyone stuck in traffic.
One goal set forth for the Olympics was to clean up Guanabara Bay, which divides Rio de Janeiro from neighboring cities like Niteroi. Industrialization turned the one-time natural beauty into a health hazard, and the Olympics were seen as the perfect time to revitalize the bay. The current status? Better, yes, but still swimming with sewage. Like so many things in Brazil, the problem stems from years of neglect coupled with a lack of funding.
And the issue of polluted water isn’t just a matter of aesthetics; the bay will be the site of Olympic sailing competitions and has already caused complications for competitors. At a 2015 Olympic test event, German sailor Erik Heil had to be treated for infections from multi-resistant germs caused by the polluted waters. Heil’s teammates now say they will wash their clothing in a special liquid after each practice to remove bacteria.
But of course the main health problem that’s been on everyone’s lips for the past few months is Zika. Most health experts would agree that the Olympics won’t do anything to worsen the spread of the virus, but nor will it do anything to help. And the people hit worst by the Zika crisis aren’t in Rio at all, but in the more impoverished regions of the country like the northeastern city of Recife. Until Brazilians are better able to access health services like safe and legal abortions, the virus will continue to be a problem, with or without the Olympics.
If the Rio 2016 organizing committee has one thing on lock, it’s swag. You want a Rio 2016 branded bikini? You got it. How about a beach towel printed with Olympic mascot Vinicius? For R $65, it’s yours! There is simply no shortage of stuff you can buy in support of Rio 2016.
Silly as it may seem to mention overpriced key chains in the same conversation as health and economic crises, anyone who thinks the Olympics aren’t an exercise in branding and merchandising (and a lucrative one at that) is naïve. But even as Rio has succeeded in implementing some cutesy mascots, how the Olympics will shape the image of the country as a whole remains to be seen.
When Rio won its bid to host the Olympics in 2009, the country went into celebration mode. Then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said, “Today is the most emotional day in my life,” and declared the Games a chance “to show the world we can be a great country.” The landscape today is much different, as Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff has been ousted from office and the state of Rio de Janeiro recently declared a “state of calamity.”
Cariocas see many parallels between the Olympics and the 2014 World Cup: the games likely will go off without a hitch, but they will not effect any lasting change. And on an international scale, they may reveal just how far Brazil has to go in achieving what Lula hoped for his country years ago.