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Geopolitics

Rio Olympics, Something Stinks As One-Year Sprint Begins

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games start next Aug. 5 in Rio de Janeiro with too many projects behind schedule. One particular environmental hurdle looks insurmountable.

Construction site of the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Rio de Janeiro on July 21
Construction site of the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Rio de Janeiro on July 21

-Analysis-

RIO DE JANEIRO — The one-year countdown to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, slated to be held between Aug. 5-21, 2016, has finally now begun. This is a special week for Brazil, and the president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach is in Rio to take part in the celebration and assess the work done so far — and that which still needs to be done.

Organizing the Olympics is an incomparable challenge, requiring hard work and precise planning, seemingly unlimited financial resources and the sacrifices of many in order to pull off the singular international sporting event. Is it all worth it? Whatever your answer, it is bound to be debated, especially at a time when Brazil's economy is shrinking and its inflation skyrocketing.

Was last year's World Cup worth it? It was without a doubt an unforgettable celebration — for Brazilians as well as for foreign visitors — but it left white elephants behind in the shape of unused stadiums and huge debts to be paid off for years to come.

The focus now, exactly as it was one year before the kickoff of the 2014 World Cup, is the sheer amount of work that still needs to be done before the Games begin. Senior International Olympic Committee officials, including president Bach, have already alerted the authorities to the fact that there was no time to lose. One official went as far as saying that the sites wouldn't be ready until the night before the opening ceremony.

Whether or not that was an exaggeration, the level of activity on the immense working sites has reached its peak. But the mystery of when it will all be ready rests with the contractors, many of them well-known and well-respected, others now engulfed in the "Lava Jato" federal investigation into money laundering allegations at Petrobras.

According to the latest budget estimations, the Rio Games will cost 38.2 billion reais ($11 billion), though this isn't the final count. Brazil's Olympic Public Authority, whose job is it to audit and coordinate the actions of the three ministries involved and the organizing committee, as well as responsible for revealing the spending figures, will still need to reassess the costs. And not only is every announcement made later than planned, but each release also shows the spending figures going up. To make matters worse, the authority can't seem to retain any of its presidents for long, even though they're directly named by the Brazilian President herself, Dilma Rousseff.

Obstacle course

The construction projects and the budget are however only part of the problems surrounding the Olympics. The Federal Court of Accounts last week published a report criticizing the accumulation of responsibilities for Carlos Arthur Nuzman, president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee and of the Organizing Committee for the Rio 2016 Games. These "conflicts of interests" risk raising costs to public coffers, the report warned, as well as causing unnecessary controversy. Nuzman dismisses the accusation, arguing he doesn't have the power alone to make decisions.

Because of the nature and scale of the Games, the preparations have come with all sorts of obstacles. Some of these issues took the organizers by surprise, like for example the disease that's threatening the equestrian sector in Rio. Other challenges find their origin in the years of negligence that have, in the case of the pollution of the Guanabara Bay, prevented any solution from materializing. These are serious and urgent matters that require commitment and action from all parties involved.

The pollution in Guanabara Bay is a well-known issue, and one that the successive governments in the Rio de Janeiro state have been ignoring for years. With time running out, it's now become unfeasible for the authorities to find a solution and offer clean water to the athletes who'll be competing for medals — something that will reflect very badly on the city's image, although officials seem more worried about financial losses.

The Associated Press has recently reported on the worrying levels of pollution, reporting that athletes will be competing in waters that are so polluted with waste and human feces that they risk falling ill.

In such a disturbing context, the news that a horse was diagnosed with glanders, an incurable disease that makes it compulsory to sacrifice contaminated animals, sent alarm bells ringing in the Deodoro region, the suburban area where the horse-riding competitions are scheduled to take place.

Despite all the controversy, Carlos Arthur Nuzman still sounds and looks as optimistic as ever. In a recent essay, he writes that great competitions are usually won by those who want it the most, particularly by those who have the most determination in the home stretch. Is one year enough time for Rio?

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