Rio glory has a dark side

By Dylan Cleaver

The Olympics start in 17 weeks and Brazil is in turmoil. This could get really interesting, writes Dylan Cleaver.
Rio boasts some spectacular sights, some of which are not so savoury on closer inspection. Photo / AP
Rio boasts some spectacular sights, some of which are not so savoury on closer inspection. Photo / AP

You can already picture the moving postcards beckoning to you in high definition.

There'll be the aerial sweep, starting above Christ the Redeemer and down to the main stadium. There'll be the wide-angled shot, panning its way along the spectacular curves - in every sense - of Copacabana and Ipanema. There'll be the Sugarloaf, Pao de Acucar, and its famous cableway.

From a distance, Rio de Janeiro, in all its topographical glory, will look wonderful. But if you want the defining image of the build-up to the 2016 Games, you'll have to peer over the edge of the Sugarloaf, into the bay it protects and focus on the disembodied arm floating among the detritus.

Pictures of the arm were sent to Brazilian website by an anonymous reader who casually noted it was not the first time he or she had seen human remains in Guanabara Bay.

"We have got used to things floating in the Bay," the contributor said.

"A lot of garbage, other objects and dead dogs."

This, remember, is the stretch of water that will host Peter Burling, Blair Tuke and the rest of the Olympic sailors.

In no sense has the build-up to these Games been smooth sailing. To recap just some of the missteps.

The golf course (because golf is an Olympic sport, you know), has been the site of protests from environmentalists who claim the impact reports on the reclamation of wetlands were a whitewash and the project has endangered several species of butterflies and frogs.

The lagoon that will host the kayaking and rowing is beset with pollution. A planned floating stand has been scrapped to cut costs. This is a real shame. There was genuine excitement at what the picturesque Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas - set back a few blocks from Ipanema Beach - could do for rowing and kayaking. Rowing has a huge tradition in Rio and three of the city's four major football clubs were formed out of well-established rowing clubs: Vasco da Gama, Flamengo and Botafogo.

The metro line meant to link the city with the Barra de Tijuica district, where the Olympic Village is sited, is in a race against time to be completed. It is a nightmare scenario if it's not, as Rio's streets and roads are notoriously gridlocked even when there is no big event.

The velodrome has missed its test event due to the track not being laid in time.

There are still grave concerns over the water quality at Guanabara Bay, with several sailors becoming sick after test events at the venue and independent testing showing exposure to viruses associated with sewage at levels much higher than would normally be considered acceptable for a sailing regatta.

An estimated half of all available tickets are unsold.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus remains a problem.

You could point to a number of these and say, "Oh well, isn't every modern Olympics hamstrung by problems?" and you'd be right (although London and Beijing were generally accepted to be superbly organised, no matter what you make of the cost). On the day of the Athens opening ceremony, I still recall seeing nails and other building materials strewn around the outside of venues, while truckloads of plants remained dying in pots they would never leave as time ran out on the landscaping projects.

What you don't have with previous Olympic Games, however, is such an extraordinary, turbulent political backdrop.

Every day, new protests or fresh scandal envelopes the Government of Dilma Rousseff, with calls for her impeachment. Cariocas, as the locals are known, are taking to the streets in numbers to protest. At best, the Games will take place in a volatile environment; at worst, in an explosive one.

When Brazil was awarded the Olympics in 2009, the country was booming. Now it is in the middle of a crippling recession with the local currency (real) plummeting against the US dollar and inflation soaring.

To add to the maelstrom, Sports Minister George Hilton has resigned just months before the flame will be lit in the Maracana.

Rubbish floats in Rio's Meriti River. Photo / AP
Rubbish floats in Rio's Meriti River. Photo / AP

The organising committee is looking to shave costs at every opportunity. Capacity is being reduced not just at the lagoon, but also at the sailing and swimming venues. Athletes at the Olympic Village will not have TVs in their rooms and the number of volunteers is being reduced.

One aspect unlikely to be compromised is security, with 85,000 security staff employed and a large arsenal of artillery at hand but, even so, the Wall Street Journal reports the commander of a key Olympic security force, Colonel Adilson Moreira, has resigned this month and contracts for some basic safety equipment have yet to be awarded.

So what does all this chaos look like on the ground? If it's anything like what the Herald saw on a visit late last year, it looks a little like mild disinterest. In all honesty, the negative headlines were about the closest Rio was coming to mustering some Olympic fever.

A tour of a few venues was mildly interesting, yet hardly instructive. The golf course looked well ahead of target and the course superintendent was nonplussed over the criticism.

"Those environmentalists who are complaining need to go and find a tree to hug," Neil Cleverly said. "We haven't removed any animals. We encourage them."

The rugby ground was a patch of dirt in the nondescript military precinct of Deodoro that has now successfully hosted a test event. Other venues there, including the hockey stadium, BMX and MTB tracks, and whitewater course, were well on the way to completion.

The Maracana, host to the opening and closing ceremonies and the main Olympic Stadium, were upgraded for the 2014 Fifa World Cup and remain fit for purpose.

You could argue, if you're willing to overlook water quality, that, aside from the velodrome, Rio de Janeiro is in better shape in terms of venues than most people were anticipating at this stage.

The awarding of the Olympics was once seen as a joyful coup for the Cidade Maravilhosa, or Marvellous City. Now the joy has been replaced by uneasy uncertainty. Will the anger locals feel about the state of Brazil's economy and their compromised government spill into this carnival of sport?

Local treasurer Antonio Carlos Jobim, the man who brought bossa nova to the world and who is immortalised in a statue at one end of Ipanema Beach, said Brazil is not for beginners.

Maybe, as the Cariocas might find out to their cost, neither are the Olympics.

Dylan Cleaver was in Rio with Sky Next (

- Herald on Sunday

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