Brazil is in crisis. The government of President Dilma Rousseff is teetering on the brink of collapse, barely mourned by a population who equate her term in office with widespread corruption and economic mismanagement. Rousseff’s coalition partners recently pulled out of the government, pushing her ruling party closer to the exit door. Ministerial resignations have become commonplace: last week the Brazilian Sports Minister, George Hilton, departed. Suddenly the preparedness of Rio for the opening of the Olympic Games on Aug 5 has been put into stark perspective. The country appears to be in chaos.
But in a briefing given by members of the Games Organising Committee to the British media last week, the mood remained strikingly bullish. “Everything will be ready on time,” insisted Mario Andrade, the director of communications for Rio 2016.
The Games are being sold on the premise that they will represent “the greatest party in the history of sport”. And talking to a couple of locals who auditioned for roles in an opening ceremony that is being directed by Fernando Mereilles, the man behind the brilliant Rio movie City of God, the suggestion is that from the off the city may well sing. But just over four months from the grand opening junket in the Maracana stadium, there remain several significant issues that could yet compromise such bold intention.
When the Games begin, Brazil’s last two presidents could be facing criminal charges. Three million people took to the streets last month to demand the impeachment of Rousseff over her involvement in a corruption scandal involving the Petrobras oil company.
The demonstration against her rule filling Rio’s Copacabana Beach was the largest in Brazilian history, with hundreds of thousands marching to show their anger at graft in high places. The sense of crisis has not been eased by Rousseff’s decision to appoint former president, Lula da Silva, as her chief of staff, a move characterised as a flagrant attempt to gift him the immunity from prosecution that comes with high office. The appointment was quashed by Brazil’s supreme court, a decision against which Rousseff is appealing.
As yet there has been no connection made between the Olympics and the wider corruption issues, but Rio’s Mayor, Eduardo Paes – the Games’ chief architect - has been linked to ex-President Lula. And a recently leaked recording of a telephone conversation between the two men exposed how much the mayor is banking on the event for personal advancement: he had hoped a successful staging would propel him into the presidency. More significantly, the crisis has meant a temporary freeze on new government spending, thus curtailing the emergency central funding Paes was hoping to call on for last-minute infrastructure improvements.
Rio’s Achilles heel. The city’s metro system is decades behind that in London. On the roads the rocky spine of hills that splits downtown from the Barra area, where the Olympic Park is sited, creates a natural bottleneck; last week it took 90 minutes to drive from the athletes’ village to the Joao Havelange athletics stadium. Since the road link is in places single carriageway, even Olympic lanes are unlikely to speed the flow.
But the worst news involves the new subway line, which was intended to whisk spectators to and from the park. The deadline for completion is July 1; test trains were due to be running on the track late last month. But since the rails have not yet been laid along much of the route, and several bridges remain in a state of half-completion, that seems unfeasible. More than 10,000 workers are engaged on the project. Pictures posted on social media of a group of them having a mid-morning nap under an as-yet unfinished viaduct, however, did not communicate a gathering sense of urgency.
For the past 150 years much of Rio’s sewage – and a good proportion of its rubbish - has been daily dumped into Guanabara Bay. The first initiative to clean up the mess dates from 1866. But it was the decision to site the Olympic sailing in the Bay, with its photogenic backdrop of Sugar Loaf mountain, that finally concentrated minds.
In 2009, when Rio won the right to stage the Games, only 12 per cent of the sewage was treated. The published aim then was to lift that to 80 per cent by the start of the sailing event. So far, the figure achieved is 50 per cent.
Recent pictures of detritus lining the beach suggest that the sailors will be confronted by all sorts floating in the water, from animal carcasses to discarded sofas. But more alarming are the independent testing results which show that the water contains levels of disease-causing viruses 1,000 times higher than considered acceptable in the United States. Anyone on board a boat would be advised not to fall in.
Half the tickets have been sold, well behind the same stage for London 2012. The official rationale for the slow uptake is that Brazilians are traditionally late buyers and that the number sold thus far represents a huge figure by local standards. Which may sound a plausible explanation until you hear that Coldplay sold out their recent gig at the Maracana within half an hour of tickets going on sale.
The building appears about as close to delivery as the Chilcot Report
The organisers are hoping that the torch relay will give a further sales impetus locally, but recognise that there are several sports – golf and rugby among them – which have limited reach in the country.Pricing, though, is not reckoned an issue, and 3.8 million of the 7.3 million Olympic tickets on offer will be sold for less than $30 (£21). Moreover, payment can be spread across four months, without interest. For the Paralympics, of the three million total, two million will be available for under $4 (£2.80), again in instalments.
“The uninvited guest at a party that is almost ready” is how Andrade described the virus. Dozens of Brazilian babies have been born this year affected by Guillan-Barré syndrome and microcephaly, two conditions associated with the mosquito-borne infection.
Significant insecticide initiatives have been undertaken around Rio, including a British-based project to release genetically modified mosquitos. The Olympic Park – sited alongside a lagoon – and the rowing lake are the most vulnerable areas of the city, built in places where the insects breed. The organisers – who have been admirably open about the risks - are planning to issue athletes and spectators with detailed instructions of how to take preventative measures.
Last week the cycling test event was postponed. This will have come as no surprise to anyone who has visited the Olympic Park recently. There the velodrome is not much more than a breeze block shell. Following a contractual dispute with the original construction company, the building appears about as close to delivery as the Chilcot Report. The ventilation system has not yet been fitted, meaning the Siberian pine track is nowhere near being laid.
A new completion target date of May 31 has been issued, with a revised trial run on June 25. But the organisers insist this is the exception: of 44 test events, the cycling is the only one to be postponed. Contrary to expectations, the overwhelming majority of the stadiums are built, ready and have been tested. Around the Olympic Park, final touches are being added, trees and shrubbery already planted along the kilometre-long central raised walkway. Everything looks ready.
The only exception is the velodrome, which appears to be working to a completion timetable for the Tokyo Games in 2020.