Brazil's games are in a 'bad phase'
After Brazil were thrashed 1-7 in the semifinal of the last World Cup, it was hard to imagine a sporting mega-event could throw up anything more dispiriting for the host nation. But with six months to go until Rio de Janeiro hosts the next Olympics, the sense of gloom is plumbing new depths as the country struggles with a Zika epidemic and a cocktail of political and economic woes.
The daily tales of woe are overshadowing the buildup to the first Games to be staged in South America.
Later this month, Rio will host test events for diving, taekwondo, race walking and wheelchair rugby, but these will be dwarfed by an anti-Zika “mega-operation” called for on the 13th by Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff.
In a televised address to the nation last week, the president described the fight against the virus as a “battle for life” and said she would use the armed forces, public officials and every necessary financial and technological resource to eradicate mosquito breeding grounds.
Preparations are already under way at military facilities across the nation. At Forte Duque de Caxias, close to Copacabana beach, troops pour chlorine into water tanks and clear gutters where larvae might be found. From the 13th, they will join public officials on missions to schools, favelas, condominiums and public spaces.
Were it not for the rapid spread of the virus, which is thought to have infected 1.5-million Brazilians since it was first found in the country last April, soldiers might have been preparing for the Games, where they will join the police in providing security.
“We hope that by the time of the Olympics we can revert to our main role of security because the climate should be cooler and the disease risk lower,” said Captain Luiz Eduardo Madureira de Moraes.
The organisers are also praying that the current tsunami of dire news will be a bad memory by the opening ceremony on August 5. But currently, it seems that nothing can go right.
The economy, which was surging ahead five years ago, has stuttered, slipped and now fallen into what looks set to be the deepest recession in more than 100 years.
The nation’s political class – once admired for the progressive and popular policies of former Workers’ Party president Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva – is fractured, paralysed and despised. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, is the most unpopular leader in more than two decades and now faces the prospect of impeachment by congress.
The business world is ensnared in the country’s worst-ever corruption scandal, involving billions of dollars of kickbacks to politicians from inflated contracts for public works. The head of the country’s biggest construction firm, Odebrecht, is in jail. Former global titans, such as Petrobras and Vale, have seen their market value sink, their credit ratings slashed and their workforces (largely concentrated in Rio) downsized.
A worker sprays the street for Zika protection
And now to top it all, the population has been hit by the country’s worst public health crisis in living memory: a Zika epidemic that has been linked to a surge in reported cases of microcephaly in newborns, and is now at the centre of what the World Health Organisation declared this week to be “a global health emergency”.
The Doctors’ Union of Rio de Janeiro warned last month that the health sector – which recently suffered budget cuts because of the recession – is not prepared for the Olympic influx.
“We have a scheduling conflict – a public health crisis and the arrival of millions of people in Rio. What worries me is the possibility of tourists contracting diseases such as Zika and not being able to find sufficient support,” the union’s president, Jorge Darze, said.
At a press conference held by the organising committee this week, almost every question was about Zika and the risks it might pose to athletes and visitors.
The organisers prefer to focus on the positives. Unlike the preparations for the World Cup, they say the stadiums and other infrastructure are on schedule.
According to the city’s website, the golf course and handball arena are finished, the main Olympic park and aquatic stadium are 97% complete and the tennis centre is at 90%. There are still concerns about the Velodrome and the Deodoro site, which will host BMX riding, whitewater rafting, hockey and some rugby, which are at only 80%. Organisers insist everything will be ready in time.
They are making similarly reassuring noises about the metro extension that will be needed to ease the usually dire traffic on the main road from the city centre to the Olympic sites. There are still several hundred metres of tunnel to be dug before rails can be laid and tests can begin, but the Rio authorities insist five new stations will be operational before the opening ceremony on August 5. Improved urban mobility looks set to be the most positive consequence of the Games.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, said it was important to recognise progress linked to the Olympics, particularly with regard to public transport. This, he reckoned, is why there has been no repeat of the mass protests seen before the World Cup.
“Brazil is going through a bad phase, but there is still a Brazil that is becoming much better,” he said by email. “One is not gonna come here and find a perfect city, we have a lot of problems. But the city has become much better, that is what is really inspiring about the Olympics.”
By contrast, the biggest disappointment is the failure to clean up the rivers of sewage that pollute Guanabara Bay (the site of the Olympic yachting event) and, to a lesser extent, the waters of the Lagoa (where the rowing will take place) and the Copacabana coastline (triathlon and marathon swimming). The revitalisation of these aquatic environments was supposed to have been the greatest legacy of Rio 2016, but samples from the bay in particular have revealed hazardous levels of viruses and competitors in test events have complained of a sewer-like stench.
“For a city that brags about its supposed sustainability, the Olympic legacy will be far below what was expected. Guanabara Bay is still a latrine,” said conservationist Mario Moscatelli. “It’s as if they had promised a Porsche V16 and are now giving us a Volkswagen 1200.”
This is not the only source of frustration. Anger also lingers at the Vila Autódromo community next to the main Olympic Park, where residents have been forced out by riot police so that demolition teams can destroy their homes. Although this is being done in the name of the Games, locals believe they are being cleansed as part of a strategy to push the poor to the periphery. Property developers have made no secret of their desire to make the Olympic village and nearby areas into an upscale neighbourhood once the event is finished.
The dire economy is not on anyone’s side. Reflecting the climate of austerity, the organisers have had to slash their operating budgets by $500-million, or more than a quarter of the initial plan. This has resulted, among other things, in a reduction of seats in the swimming and rowing venues.
Ticket-sale income is unlikely to make up the shortfall. So far about 74% of the targeted income from this source has been reached. Tickets are still available, particularly for the Paralympics, which has generated far less interest than hoped despite ticket prices of less than $3.
Given the cluster of crises, many wonder whether the mega-event will be good for the city.
“When Rio was chosen to host the Olympics, no one imagined a situation like the one we are experiencing today. If the context back then was similar, I suppose civil society would have been far more critical,” said Luiz Antonio Simas, a Rio historian.
But others hope the event will be a distraction from the seemingly relentless daily dose of doom and gloom.
Isabel Swan, a sailor, said the recent grim news only made her more determined to enjoy what she believes will be a beautiful Olympic party. “The country is passing through a difficult moment, with health, political and economic crises,” she acknowledged, but added: “I think the Olympics will be a breath of fresh air.”
Much can change in the coming six months. August is the middle of Rio’s winter and a low point for transmission of mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika. By then, the focus of the world’s attention may well have shifted back to sport as often happens once the first whistle is blown and the first starting gun is fired on the track.
“I think the Olympics will be a success,” windsurfer Patricia Freitas predicted. “Zika doesn’t compromise anything. Ahead of every Games, there are polemical issues, but during the Olympics the celebration is so big and nice that all the polemics are put aside, at least for a moment.”
That forecast may yet prove accurate, barring a new twist in the Zika crisis, a further collapse in the economy, a deepening of the political turmoil or an Olympic equivalent of the 1-7 defeat. One or two golds in the early days of the event and the mood could change.
Given all that has happened to this ill-fated host nation over the past year, few would begrudge Brazil a clutch of Olympic medals. But no matter how many times its athletes reach the podium, it will be a long time before anyone repeats the old saying that “God is Brazilian”. – © Guardian News & Media 2016
Additional reporting by André Costa