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Rio will host the first Olympics in South America, ready or not

The head of the Australian delegation, Kitty Chiller, speaks during a press conference outside the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, on Sunday, July 24, 2016. Chiller said  Australian athletes would  not move into their rooms at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics until serious plumbing, electrical and cleaning problems were fixed. (Leo Correa / Associated Press)
The head of the Australian delegation, Kitty Chiller, speaks during a press conference outside the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, on Sunday, July 24, 2016. Chiller said Australian athletes would not move into their rooms at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics until serious plumbing, electrical and cleaning problems were fixed. (Leo Correa / Associated Press)
By Linda Robertson Tribune News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO – No Olympic host city has confronted the list of crises pummeling Rio, which proudly celebrated becoming the first South American site of the games and Brazil’s momentum as an emerging world power with a euphoric dance party on Copacabana beach seven tumultuous years ago.

But the main thing to emerge since then is disappointment. Brazil’s city of extremes frantically prepares for the Friday opening ceremonies while beset by a crippling recession; a corruption scandal that has ensnared the impeached president, congressmen and corporate executives; increasing crime; the threat of terrorism; Zika-carrying mosquitoes; and polluted waters where sailors, rowers and swimmers have dodged raw sewage.

The news out of Rio reads like a black comedy: Body parts washing up at the beach volleyball venue; athletes unable to move into the Olympic Village because of blocked toilets and exposed wiring; unpaid police officers greeting visitors at the airport with a “Welcome to Hell” banner. During the torch relay, a jaguar was shot to death after escaping its handler, and a bystander tried to douse the flame with a fire extinguisher.

The Russian doping scandal also means Rio will stage a diminished games.

Confident Cariocas who heard the same predictions of disaster before the 2014 World Cup repeat the saying that no place knows how to throw a party like Rio, but grumble under their breath that what was supposed to be a glorious coming-out party will leave Rio with a brutal hangover.

“Having already failed, the Rio Olympics may now succeed,” said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “The Athens, Beijing and Sochi Olympics and the World Cups in South Africa and Brazil were supposed to be nightmares, but in Brazil anyway only the soccer team was. We saw a pattern of flop-to-success reversal in all these events. Rio could be the exception, but expectations are so low it won’t be difficult to beat them.”

The governor of bankrupt Rio state declared a “public calamity” in order to wrest $890 million in emergency funds from the federal government to complete Olympic projects and pay hospital workers, firefighters, policemen and university professors. Rio’s mayor has called the Olympics “a missed opportunity.”

When Rio won the Olympic bid in 2009 during oil-drenched boom times, there was a feeling Brazil was following the same path as populist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a charismatic man who had risen from the entrenched poverty of his youth as a shoeshine boy and steel mill worker to leader a nation of 200 million finally ready to cross the threshold and be recognized as an economic and political power rather than merely the home of soccer, samba and bikinis.

But, like a gymnast losing her grip on the uneven bars, Brazil soared high and crashed hard. Neither Lula, indicted for obstructing a corruption investigation of state oil giant Petrobras, nor his successor Dilma Rousseff, suspended and expected to be removed from office, will attend opening ceremonies.

“Taking on the World Cup and the Olympics was an example of hubris, of overreaching,” said Juliana Barbassa, Rio native and author of the book “Dancing With the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink.” “They bet big and the people will be left with the bills. Brazil was poised for transformation then ran into the perfect storm of ridiculous promises, mismanagement, economic collapse and the venal elite again governing for itself and funneling public funds into its own pockets.”

The rule-bending, problem-solving concept of “jeitinho” doesn’t work when trying to finish the subway line that’s a year overdue or clean garbage out of contaminated Guanabara Bay with inadequate eco-boats or fix the athletes village constructed by a company whose CEO is in jail.

“You can’t wrap 19 unfinished buildings in duct tape,” said Barbassa, wondering what will happen with plumbing in the village once it’s occupied by 10,000 athletes.

On the streets of Ipanema and Copacabana, where vendors sell mosquito-swatting rackets and Brazilian flags, residents joke that they no longer know the names of the Selecao, the national soccer team that was humiliated 7-1 by Germany in the 2014 Cup semifinals, but they have learned the names of the Supreme Court justices sentencing Petrobras embezzlers. Most say that with 10 percent unemployment and 9 percent inflation they don’t plan to buy tickets to Olympic events. They haven’t lost their warmth and humor but they do seem weary of the Olympic burden.

The games will cost $4.6 billion, or 51 percent over budget in a city where 20 percent of the 6.5 million residents live in favelas, the shantytowns perched on hillsides. The once-promising Pacification Police Unit initiative is falling apart due to lack of funding, and drug gang violence has intensified.

“Imagine if Rio had invested all this political will into programs to help the local population,” Barbassa said.

Nevertheless, there is optimism that Cariocas’ mood will lift, the games will provide their usual drama and the home team will increase its medal total to 25-30.

“The Olympics are coinciding with signs of an economic turnaround in 2017,” said Armando Castelar Pinheiro, an economist for the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s Brazilian Institute of Economics. “I think the games have been better managed than the World Cup, will increase future tourism and will leave a legacy of urban renewal.”

While Sotero, the Brazil Institute director, gives Rio’s leaders a D for execution, he praises the populace.

“Brazilians are going through a lot of stress, but they will be very welcoming, the music will be great, the food delicious,” he said.

TV cameras will pan across the stunning landscape of the Cidade Maravilhosa accompanied by a bossa nova soundtrack, the beach volleyball venue will be festive rather than gruesome and maybe everyone will forget about the traffic.

“This is a place,” Barbassa said, “where one Carnival band can draw 2 million people into the street.”

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