Olympics: Rio's $15 billion broken promise

By Michael Place

A guard stands in the Olympic athletes village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, July 30, 2016. Photo / AP
A guard stands in the Olympic athletes village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, July 30, 2016. Photo / AP

A raggedly dressed, elderly woman sleeps on a patch of grass beside a busy highway in Rio de Janeiro's affluent south zone.

Using a bag stuffed with her belongings as a pillow, she seems oblivious to traffic whizzing out of a tunnel behind her. Darting past in their thousands on a sun-drenched winter afternoon, they appear equally oblivious to her.

Above the tunnel, Rio's official Olympic logo is splashed incongruously: "Um Mundo Novo - A New World."

It is almost seven years since this city of 6.3 million, spectacularly wedged between tropical mountains and sandy Atlantic coastline, won the rights to host the first Olympic Games in South America on a promise to transform itself.

Rio's Olympic blueprint included plans to decongest roads, tackle crime, improve dilapidated infrastructure­, clean polluted waterways and address a yawning gap between rich and poor.

But, with less than a week until the opening ceremony, few pre-Olympic pledges have been fulfilled. Instead, the city is grappling with the Zika virus, pollution, rising crime levels and a deepening economic crisis.

The image of the homeless woman by the side of the road went viral last week after being posted on social media by filmmaker Felipe Barcellos.

"I saw it from a bus and got off to get a better look," Barcellos, 47, said. "I always try to capture what is happening in the city, what we tolerate and what we pretend not to see."

Barcellos believes that, just like the 2014 football World Cup Brazil hosted, the Olympics have not improved life for local residents.

"People are rightly asking where all the money has gone," he said.

There are more than 5500 homeless people in Rio. Many say the figure has risen recently as the city feels the impact of Brazil's worst recession in decades.

Brazil's economy has shrunk in each of the past five quarters, strangled by corruption at state-run oil company Petrobras. Suspended President Dilma Rousseff, accused of breaking budget rules, could be ousted after the Olympics.

In June, Rio de Janeiro state governor Francisco Dornelles declared a state of financial emergency and warned that public services - including police - faced "total collapse". Fears about security during the Olympics escalated last month when police held up placards at Rio's international airport that read: "Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don't get paid. Whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe."

Days later, the Federal Government agreed to hand the state $US850 million in emergency funds. Brazil plans to deploy 88,000 soldiers and police during the Olympics, more than double the number at the London 2012 Games.

But doubt hangs over the city's ability to ensure public safety. Violent robberies in Rio's streets rose 14 per cent from January to May. In 2015 there were 48,700 muggings in Rio, almost three times the number in New York.

Athletes and journalists in Rio for the Games have already been victims of crime. Last month Australian Paralympian Liesl Tesch was robbed at gunpoint and two German TV crews had equipment stolen after their vehicle was hijacked.

Even Rio residents - who are largely desensitised to violence - are worried
about their safety during the Games.

"They can call up all the soldiers they like, but I'm not sure it will make a difference," student Pablo Araujo said. "The army isn't prepared to fight this type of street crime."

Brazil is also stepping up plans to combat the threat of terrorism. It has said it is working with intelligence agencies from 100 countries.

But despite a vow "to take security to another level", Rio 2016 organising committee president Carlos Nuzman said there was no way to completely eliminate the threat posed by terrorists.

The Government launched an awareness drive to educate a population unfamiliar with terror threats, distributing brochures and booklets explaining how to identify suspicious people.

Of the many Olympic legacy projects outlined by city officials in 2009, perhaps the most ambitious was a promise to reduce pollution in Guanabara Bay by 80 per cent.

Mayor Eduardo Paes has admitted the target will not be met. Instead, the local government has placed large nets that block the flow of untreated sewage around areas that will be used for Olympic sailing events.

Despite assurances from officials that the bay will be suitable for sailing, many athletes have doubts. Several said they fell ill from contaminated water during a Rio 2016 test event last year.

Stadiums and other infrastructure projects have been built, though many Rio residents are sceptical about whether they will be ready.

Work on a new tram line linking Rio's domestic airport to its major bus terminal, via a revamped port district, has not been completed. Much of the port area is fenced off as workers scramble to finish a waterfront promenade.

A bigger worry is a new metro line connecting the city to Barra da Tijuca, the neighbourhood in Rio's west that is home to Olympic Park and the Olympic Village. Engineers are still conducting tests along the 16km stretch of tracks that runs under a canal and through mountains.

Meanwhile, some of the new stations remain surrounded by scaffolding and idle workers. The State Government says the line will open on Monday, four days before the Games begin.

Most of the Games venues have been built without a hitch. Exceptions are the velodrome and tennis centres, where construction was still taking place in mid-July. Rio has spent about $US15.7 billion on the Games, more than half of which has come from private investors.

Urban projects completed include express bus lanes and a road that features Brazil's longest underground tunnel, bypassing the Rio city centre. They also included the razing of the Vila Autodromo favela next to Olympic Park, forcing about 600 people to relocate.

It is arguable that the greatest cause for concern among Rio 2016 organisers has been the Zika virus.

Scores of athletes have withdrawn from the Games because of fears of contracting the virus, among them the world's top four male golfers - Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.

According to International Olympic Committee pres­ident Thomas Bach, Rio has undergone the biggest urban redevelopment by an Olympic city since Barcelona in 1992.

Like Barcelona, the city has turned a once-derelict port area into a glistening waterfront while unveiling new public transport services and state-of-the-art sports facilities­.

But Bach's vow that there will be "a much better Rio after the Olympics" has not convinced everybody.

"What will be the social impact of Rio 2016? That's the question," Barcellos mused as we discuss the homeless woman in his photo.

"Is there really going to be a legacy? Or is it just a myth that has been peddled for the past seven years?"

- news.com.au

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