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Americas

Rio's modernization push in run-up to 2016 Olympics

The Olympic flag has arrived in the Brazilian coastal metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. But the city has a long road ahead before it's ready for the 2016 Games, with security and infrastructure in need of modernization.

Passion and change - Paixao e Transformacao - that's Rio de Janeiro's promise to the world. When athletes gather in the city at Sugarloaf Mountain to compete for Olympic medals four years from now, the Brazilian organizers hope to offer better games than those that just closed in London. It's a noble goal, since the British capital set the bar very high.

Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, told the BBC during the last day of the London games that he was confident the Summer Olympics in Rio would be a major success. But not only does the city have to complete a host of pending projects for the 2016 Olympics, Rio also has to make sure that it's ready to play host to the World Cup in 2014. Security, transportation and lodging are considered particularly challenging areas.

Working against the clock

According to the organizing committee, 47 percent of the sports facilities in Rio are ready for the games. But Agostinho Guerreiro, president of Rio's architecture and engineering association, cautions that should not be taken too literally. Geurreiro told DW that in reality between 40 and 50 percent are running according to schedule.

Eduardo Paes (L), Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, waves the Olympic flag next to International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge (C) and London Mayor Boris Johnson dat the Olympic Stadium during the Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, London, Great Britain, 12 August 2012. Photo: Michael Kappeler dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Rio is now home to the Olympic flag until 2016

Many of the facilities were built for the Pan American games in 2007. According to Guerreiro, not all of them conform to IOC norms, like the Velodrom, an indoor track cycling arena. No decision has been made as to whether they should be torn down or renovated. The organizing committee wants new facilities to be built in their stead, while Mayor Paes is against the idea.

The Olympic stadium "Joao Havelange" has also sparked controversy. Swiss court documents have implicated Havelange, the former president of FIFA, in a bribery scandal. He allegedly received millions of dollars in World Cup kickbacks during the 1990s. Many Brazilians now want the name of the track-and-field stadium changed.  

'Liberation plan'

Security in Rio is a problem that has been the focus of international scrutiny. Images of tanks and soldiers combing through Rio's poor districts - the so-called Favelas - were broadcast around the world in 2011, creating a sensation. The military campaign was part of the so-called "liberation plan" of State Public Security Secretary Jose Beltrame. He wants to free 1,000 Favelas from the control of drug lords by 2014.

A police force created expressly for that purpose, the Police Pacification Unit (UPP), has already established security in 40 percent of these neighborhoods. Even tourists can now visit them without danger. But critics are concerned about what happens after the 2016 Olympics are over. They fear that the UPP will be withdrawn, and therefore argue that Beltrame's "liberation plan" does not represent a long-term solution.

Transportation expansion

A solution also has to be found for Rio's transportation shortcomings. Mayor Paes has admitted that the city's infrastructure is not as good as London's. But he has said that Rio is in the process of expanding its transit system. The metro in Rio encompasses around 42 kilometers (26 miles) and is already overloaded during rush hour. Currently, only 18 percent of the population in Rio uses mass transit. After the 2016 games, the city hopes that number will go up to 60 percent.

Unlike London, Rio is planning to rely above all on an express bus system. The Olympic organizers promise that it will not take longer than 25 minutes for the athletes to travel from their lodgings to the sports arenas. But there are already limitations. Around 30 percent of the participants will have to plan for trips double that long. The express buses won't be able to change that.

But the situation has improved for the residents of Rio's poorer neighborhoods on the west side of the city. The express buses are already running there, and they have significantly cut down on the commute to work to the more well-to-do neighborhoods of Barra da Tijuca and Recreio. Half of the competitions are supposed to take place in those neighborhoods, with the rest of the events split between the districts of Deodoro, Copacabana, and Maracana.

Inspired by London, the Brazilians are planning to build temporary sports facilities there. Seven of the arenas will simply be torn down after the games. That should prevent the proliferation of so-called "white elephants," buildings that are left vacant and simply suck up money after the Olympics end.

Lodging boom

Rio has also found an innovative solution for the problem of insufficient lodging in the city. In 2006, the period of the competition to host the games, Rio only had around 20,000 hotel rooms. By 2016, that number is supposed to rise to 40,000. But up until now, Rio has only managed to add 1,000 new rooms per year. So instead of exclusively trying to build new hotels, the city plans to modernize the port for cruise ships, which will act as hotels on the water.

For Agostinho Guerreiro, the decision to modernize the port is one of the most important achievements of the preparation for the Olympics. He said that the games will breathe new life into the port area, significantly upgrading what is currently a run down neighborhood.

Rio also wants to upgrade its airport, Galeao. The buildings date back to the period from the 1950s to the 1970s and are in desperate need of renovation - that at a time of growing passenger traffic. The government is therefore thinking of privatizing the airport. Rio would be following the example of Sao Paulo and the capital, Brasilia, and last but not least - London.

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