National Security & Defense

The Rio Olympics: Catch the Fever!

The 2016 Rio Olympics mascot Vinicius on Copacabana Beach. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)
The IOC averted its eyes from the glaring, predictable problems in Rio.

The International Olympic Committee wanted to believe that Rio de Janeiro could host a spectacular edition of the games, and demonstrate that a once-developing nation could equal the globe’s rich First World powers. Now the world’s athletes are going to pay the price for the committee’s blind faith.

A quick perusal of the problems facing the upcoming Olympic games in Rio:

‐ The games will occur during an ongoing outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which can cause severe birth defects. Several major athletes have already announced they will skip the games because of the virus and others once expected to play are staying home, citing injuries. (Looking at you, Steph Curry.) The World Health Organization and International Olympic Committee insist that Zika poses no major threat and that the games should continue as planned — though 150 doctors and bioethicists signed a letter urging the games be postponed or moved.

‐ Guanabara Bay will be used for sailing and windsurfing competitions, but the water is heavily polluted. Drug-resistant bacteria have been found on Rio’s beaches and in its waterways, along with raw sewage. While bidding for the games, Brazil had promised to spend as much as $4 billion to clean up the bay — though the state government ended up spending only $170 million according to the New York Times.

‐ Concerns about crime have forced the Brazilian government to deploy the military to patrol the city. At the Rio airport, striking police officers held up a banner that read: “Welcome to Hell: police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.” More worryingly, after the attacks in Munich in ’72 and Atlanta in ’96, it’s whistling past the graveyard to hope terrorists won’t have an interest in disrupting these Olympic games.

‐ Human body parts, including a foot, washed up on Rio’s iconic Copacabana Beach in late June, just yards from where the Olympic beach volleyball events will take place.

‐ Almost none of the construction was done just a month ago. The New York Times’s Vanessa Barbara filed an almost unbelievable description from Rio in July: “The city is a huge construction site. Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017. . . . Almost all venues are still under construction.” As of today, work on many venues still isn’t quite complete — last minute construction is ongoing all over the Olympic Park. And there are serious questions about the quality of the construction; a bike path collapsed in April, killing two people.

‐ In June, the governor of Rio de Janeiro state declared a “state of financial disaster” in order to have more leeway to move scarce state funds around to supplement the city’s massive financial commitment. This, of course, comes in the midst of Brazil’s severe financial crisis and a deepening recession — the worst in two decades.

Despite all this, the official line from the International Olympic Committee is that there are no major problems, all is well, and everyone should be ready for a terrific event. When IOC Coordination Commission chairwoman Nawal El Moutawakel completed her final round of inspections and meetings, she declared, “Rio 2016 is ready to welcome the world,” adding that “the Olympians of 2016 can look forward to living in an outstanding Olympic Village and competing in absolutely stunning venues.”

On every issue from Zika to the polluted waters to security to venues, the message from the committee is that everything will be fixed in time. Either we’re about to bear witness to a miraculous improvement on several fronts simultaneously, or the International Olympic Committee is demonstrating one of the most epic exhibitions of willful blindness ever.

(An interesting question is whether Americans watching at home will hear much about any of this during the Olympics broadcasts. In 2014, NBC paid $7.5 billion for the broadcast rights for the Olympics through 2032, and they would clearly prefer to showcase a happy story of Americans winning gold in shining venues. Two years ago, NBC faced charges it largely whitewashed the problems overshadowing the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Time will tell if Bob Costas averts his [pink] eye from Rio’s problems.)

#share#The International Olympic Committee awarded the 2016 games to Rio in October 2009. For the first time, an American president, Barack Obama traveled to the IOC meeting to make the pitch for his hometown; in a surprise move, the Olympic Committee snubbed the president when Chicago was the first nominated city eliminated. But perhaps Obama couldn’t be blamed; he was up against an unstoppable force, the committee’s desire to showcase how Brazil wasn’t part of the Third World anymore.

Brazil’s president at the time, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, made a case to the Olympic Committee that amounted to geographic affirmative action; the argument pointed out that North America, Europe, and East Asia had hosted more than their fair share of games.

“The opportunity now is to extend the Games to a new continent,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for an Olympics in a tropical country for the first time, to feel the warmth of our people, the exuberance of our culture and the sensation of our joy.” Lula reiterated that Brazil was the only one of the world’s top-ten economic powers not to have staged the Olympics.

Brazil hasn’t changed, grown, or improved as much as its fans wanted to believe.

The Rio pick aimed to affirm a happy narrative that Brazil, once poor, authoritarian, corrupt, and disorganized, was now a leader on the world stage:  “Lula will be rewarded with yet another venue to showcase Brazil and to signal the country’s growing international influence,” wrote Eduardo J. Gomez in Foreign Policy. “In short, the Olympic Games will reaffirm the government’s international reputation as a leader among emerging nations.”

Except, as we now see, Brazil hasn’t changed, grown, or improved as much as its fans wanted to believe. There was a time when the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta were considered controversial and in some ways, a disappointment; the weather was hot and humid — and a bomb detonated in Centennial Park. Those problems look like small potatoes compared with the predictable mess gathering on Brazil’s southeastern coast today.

#related#The Olympic Committee wanted to believe that Rio de Janeiro could be as great a host city as London or Sydney. For scenery, yes; for organization, attention to detail, honesty in assessing problems, and the ability to meet deadlines, no.

Late June brought the ultimate symbol of an Olympics gone terribly wrong: Juma, a 17-year-old jaguar from a zoo, participated in an event with the Olympic torch. But shortly after the event, the animal escaped its handlers and had to be shot with a tranquilizer. Either the tranquilizer was ineffective or a soldier was trigger-happy; Juma lunged toward a soldier and the animal was shot dead.

A jaguar is still a jaguar, and Brazil is still Brazil. In the coming weeks, we’ll see just how big the consequences are from the IOC’s refusal to accept that fact.

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