As the curtain rises on the 31st Olympics, the prospects for a memorable games in Rio de Janiero are uncertain. Not every venue is finished, the lengthy no-show list starves the event of some big names, water quality where sailors, ocean swimmers and board-riders will compete is a health hazard, and the famous Copacabana Beach, site of the volleyball arena, flooded in recent heavy rains.

Worries about the Zika virus, political corruption, the Russian doping scandal, alarming levels of violence and warnings to spectators to avoid no-go areas have cast a pall over the hectic final sprint to today's opening ceremony, which is unlikely to feature the nation's suspended head of state, Dilma Rousseff.

She faces impeachment proceedings. Her chief political rival, who is expected to bask in the front row today, refused to let her into the VIP Olympic Stadium suite, offering instead "the stands below him". She was unimpressed, saying she did not intend to take a back seat.

It is as though Brazil is out of the medal race before the starter's gun has fired. And that seems a harsh way to judge the inaugural South American Olympics, and the first held in a developing nation.


Already there are signs the International Olympic Committee has got cold feet locating future Games in an emerging economy. Africa and India may be casualties of Rio's problems, despite the optimism that greeted the selection of the big, vibrant city in 2009.

When Brazil was gifted the Games in the lottery run by the IOC, the choice of Rio was made in a spirit of optimism and confidence. The vast South American nation was expected by now to be one of the fifth-biggest economies in the world. Instead it has slipped into its worst recession in decades, and the Government is struggling to shake off a damaging political scandal. Its former President, Lula da Silva, once a hugely popular figure who helped secure the Games for Brazil, is himself under investigation for corruption.

It is worth remembering that just two years ago Brazil staged a successful Football World Cup. In the lead-up to most Olympics, gloomy predictions about disasters lying in wait are commonplace. These mega-events come at a cost. Montreal, host in 1976, took 30 years to pay off its Olympic debt. Frogs use training pools in Athens, where the 2004 Games were held, and Beijing's distinctive bird's nest stadium hires Segways to tourists.

Officially, Rio has spent $16 billion on its Games, and cut spending on healthcare and education. The real cost could be closer to $25 billion, a heavy drain for a soggy economy, where 20 per cent of the population live in shanties.

For the next two weeks, 85,000 soldiers and police will be on Rio's streets. A new rail line should ensure spectators get to the main stadiums on time and for the massive global television audience, the circle of forested mountains and string of beaches will look spectacular on screen.

Olympic gold remains the dream of top athletes and will get New Zealand sports fans out of bed in the small hours to see our best medal prospects compete. The enduring power of the modern Games, and the spectacle of curious sports and human drama, should ensure that regardless of Rio's catalogue of woes, early morning alarms will remain set for the next fortnight.