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Rio still struggles with litany of problems through 1st week

By Stephen Wilson Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO – Rows of empty seats, green water, controlled explosions, stray bullets, the killing of a young policeman in a favela, muggings of team officials, an attack on a media bus, spotty weather, snarled traffic, long travel distances and lack of a Carnival atmosphere.

Halfway through the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is still struggling with a litany of problems that have underlined the challenges of taking the games away from their traditional territories, and made clear they may not go to untested regions again in the near future.

The athletes and sports competitions have risen to the occasion, the Brazilians have been welcoming and friendly, and TV pictures beamed around the world have featured Rio’s beautiful scenery and backdrops at their best.

Overall, though, Olympic officials and veterans say Rio has been beset by so many organizational issues that South America’s first games have been more of a disappointment than a delight.

“It has been along the lines of what experienced Olympic observers and organizers would have expected,” said Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, in an interview with the Associated Press. “Then you add the political and corruption issues, and they didn’t have a chance to get everything done the way they would have liked to.”

IOC vice president John Coates told the BBC: “This has been the most difficult games we have ever encountered.”

Seven years ago, the International Olympic Committee selected Rio over Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago as the 2016 host city. Rio won because IOC members were convinced the time had come to go to South America. Back then, Brazil was a rising economic and political star on the world stage.

Today, Brazil is mired in a crippling recession, its suspended president is facing impeachment, and many politicians and business leaders are locked up in a massive corruption scandal. Budget cuts and cash flow problems forced Olympic organizers to scale back.

“There were two or three other candidates in that (2016) race that would have done a much better job,” Pound said. “There is a reason the games haven’t been held here before. Every day is a challenge.”

In many parts of Rio, it’s hard to tell the city is hosting the Olympics. Dressing up the venues with the “look of the games” branding – logos, banners and other designs – has fallen short after a Ukrainian supplier failed to deliver.

“The good part is that the Brazilian fans are great and the Brazilian people are as helpful as can be,” Olympic historian David Wallechinsky told the AP. “The negative part is they are simply not prepared. They had seven years. They should have been able to get it together. They just didn’t.”

Wallechinsky, who is attending his 17th Olympics, added: “The negative part combines the last-minute preparedness of Athens 2004 with the incompetence of the organizers of Atlanta 1996 – the worst of the two.”

Rio organizers remain publicly upbeat.

“We need to finish what we have started,” Rio organizing committee spokesman Mario Andrada said Saturday. “I’ll be glad to come to you after the games and give you a full detailed report on everything we did well and everything that we did wrong. But we have a lot to celebrate.”

IOC spokesman Mark Adams said: “I think we’ll look back on these games as being a really good thing for the Olympic movement.”

The games have gone forward without any major disruption. Security is tight throughout the city, and more than a dozen Brazilians have been arrested after declaring loyalty to Islamic State.

Among the problems that have surfaced so far:

An Olympic security officer was fatally shot after taking a wrong turn into a dangerous slum.

Two Australian rowing coaches were attacked and robbed by two assailants, one with a knife, in Ipanema, and Portugal’s education minister was held up at knife-point on a busy street nearby.

Stray bullets have twice landed in the equestrian venue at the Olympic complex in Deodoro.

Two windows were shattered on a bus carrying journalists; Rio organizers blamed rocks, some claimed it was gunfire.

A German Olympic canoe coach, Stefan Henze, suffered life-threatening head injuries when a taxi he was riding in crashed into a concrete barrier near the Olympic Park.

Bomb squads set off several controlled explosions after finding unattended bags at venues and across the city.

The water at the diving and water polo pool turned green. Organizers blamed a contractor for mistakenly dumping hydrogen peroxide into the pool. “The embarrassment won’t last forever,” Andrada said.

Some venues, including the track and field stadium for Friday’s opening day of athletics competition, have been plagued by empty seats and small crowds. High ticket prices and lack of interest among Brazilians in some sports have been blamed.

Because of a shortage of concession stands at some venues, organizers have had to open the gates to let fans out to find food and water.

Sergio Praca, a Brazilian political scientist, said his friends tell him: “‘We’ve always known it was going to be a disaster in organization, but now that the games are started, let’s just make the best of it.’ I think we as Brazilians never overestimated our capacity to organize anything.’”

The situation looks more stable for the coming Olympics, with the next three in Asia – the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea; the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

Four cities are bidding for the 2024 Olympics – Los Angeles, Paris, Rome and Budapest, Hungary.

Several cities and countries are already mulling bids for the 2026 Winter Games, including Switzerland; Italy; Calgary; Stockholm; Oslo; and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Africa is the last of the five continents represented by the Olympic rings that has yet to host the games. South Africa could potentially make a bid for the 2028 or 2032 Games.

Adams, the IOC spokesman, said spreading the games around the world remains the goal.

“It’s important,” he said, “that the Olympics isn’t just a kind of little European or American club.”

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