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Rio 2016 keeps the bar low

Donna Bowater, Rio de Janeiro
April 26, 2016

The 2016 Olympic Games have been overshadowed by a perfect storm of political crisis, corruption scandal and economic recession. In Brazil, expectations are modest, reports Donna Bowater from Rio de Janeiro.

Sand sculptures alluding to the Olympic Games at Copacabana beach in Rio
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M.Sayao

When Rio de Janeiro won the bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, the then president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said it marked Brazil's entrance onto the world stage. Commodities were booming and Brazil was considered an emerging market, a powerhouse of the future, and now with the added promise of a crowning, carnivalesque Olympics.

Yet with 100 days to go until the Rio 2016 Games, the country has attracted global attention for the wrong reasons, reasons which are threatening to overshadow the first Games in South America. A political crisis that could lead to President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, an unprecedented corruption scandal and an economic recession have created the perfect storm in Brazil - and the venues near completion, the preparations for and challenges of hosting an Olympics are taking a backseat.

"Political mayhem plus economic catastrophe equals a sort of twisted Olympic godsend, in the sense that the political and economic double whammy has deflected attention from Rio 2016," said Jules Boykoff, author of "Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics" and a politics lecturer at Pacific University in Oregon. "The people from Rio 2016 have savvily set the bar really low."

'Austerity Games'

The ongoing turmoil has set the stage for a somewhat muted Olympics, which have already been dubbed by some the "Austerity Games."

Nawal el Moutawakel, chair of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) coordination commission, described the climate in Brazil as a "complex environment, politically and economically."

Organizers said that right from the start, there had been tight reins on the R$7.4 billion (1.8 billion euro) budget for Rio 2016.

But as the country suffered its worst recession in almost three decades, with the economy shrinking by 3.8 percent last year, Olympic organizers trimmed around R$850 million from expenses for the event.

"We had expenses cut because we needed to balance the budget," said Mario Andrada, director of communications at Rio 2016. "The Games are usually relaxed on how much they spend. We cannot be relaxed so we have to make sure that everything we spend, everything we are using has a reason to be there.

"Nobody gets a blank check for the Olympic Games. We need to send a very important message to the people, a message of transparency but also a message that we are not overspending," he told DW.

Dilma Rousseff
Dilma Rousseff could be impeached before the Games beginImage: Reuters/U. Marcelino

The organizing committee said its market research partners, Nielsen, had found 70 percent approval ratings for the Olympics among the public, which two years ago also hosted the World Cup. But ticket sales were sluggish until the soccer tournament draw and release of soccer tickets.

Rio 2016 said it was now "on the right track" with around 80 percent of available tickets sold.

Yet as the Olympic flame was lit in Greece last week, questions were raised over the public's engagement with the Games.

President Dilma Rousseff, who had been expected to attend the flame lighting ceremony in Olympia, cancelled her trip, as the impeachment process advanced against her, while organizers hoped the torch relay, which will begin on May 3, will be the "silver bullet" for promoting Rio 2016.

Fuel for unrest

Meanwhile, there are concerns that protests over the political crisis may also spill over in the run-up to the Games, which start on August 5.

"We have a perfect storm for protests in the sense that we have high spending, we've got displacements, we're going to see the militarization of public space," added Boykoff, who spent four months in Rio last year as a Fulbright fellow. "I went all around Rio and talked to people from all political stripes and it was really hard to find anybody who was excited about the Olympics."

The image of the Games has also been tainted after being drawn into a multi-billion dollar bribery scandal that has rocked the country. The two-year "Car Wash" investigation has uncovered allegations of a massive kickback scheme within oil company Petrobras involving some of the country's biggest construction firms.

Last month, officers carried out 15 arrests, seizing paperwork that reportedly revealed a "parallel accounting scheme" to pay off members of the state government in relation to Olympic legacy works. The claims related to the extension of the metro line to connect the beach neighborhoods to the west of the city, including the Olympic Park, and the regeneration of the port area by construction giant Odebrecht.

Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro
Work goes on in Rio to prepare for the GamesImage: Getty Images/M. Tama

The metro work, which has been repeatedly delayed, will have a "soft opening" around a month before the opening ceremony, despite the state government seeking an extra R$1 billion from the federal government to complete the line.

"There's no shortage of material pointing to irregularities by contractors that are constructing Olympic facilities," said councilor Jefferson Moura, who is leading calls to open an inquiry into Olympic spending.

The campaign to investigate contracts for the Games gathered pace after a 50-meter stretch of a new coastal bikeway collapsed into the sea last week, killing two. The R$44 million route had been inaugurated in January and was one of the Olympic legacy projects designed to improve links between the south and west of the city.

Rio's city hall promised a full investigation into the accident while Andrada said the local organizing committee was ready to cooperate with any inquiry.

Making way for athletes

Olympic organizers have done nothing wrong, he added.

"We can be the good news, because we have the Games ready on time, on budget, and that will show how Brazilians are able to overcome obstacles," he said. "We practically organized the Games with the country in slow motion.

"When the Games start, we leave the center stage and it becomes the territory of the athletes."

Olympic torch for Rio 2016 lit

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