Luke DeCock

Down to the wire, can Rio pull this off? – DeCock

Athletes from the US Olympic team wave from a bus to locals after their arrival to Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 29. The Olympic and Paralympic Games Rio 2016 will be held in Brazil from August 5 to 21 and September 7 to 18, respectively. / AFP PHOTO / VANDERLEI ALMEIDAVANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
Athletes from the US Olympic team wave from a bus to locals after their arrival to Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 29. The Olympic and Paralympic Games Rio 2016 will be held in Brazil from August 5 to 21 and September 7 to 18, respectively. / AFP PHOTO / VANDERLEI ALMEIDAVANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images AFP/Getty Images

If the water doesn’t kill you, the crime will. When the Australian team tried to move into the Athletes’ Village, pipes leaked, toilets overflowed and electricity shorted out. The ocean events will be contested on a bay filled with garbage. Body parts washed ashore at the beach-volleyball venue.

On a sliding scale, that’s some of the good news out of Rio de Janeiro ahead of the Olympics. There’s also a subway line critical for moving people to the Olympic Park that has yet to be tested, let alone put into operation, and a local government too broke to pay cops or firefighters or buy medical supplies for hospitals.

Oh, and let’s not forget: Zika.

In short, the run-up to these Summer Games has made Sochi look like Atlanta by comparison. For two years, the steady stream of bad news has flowed out of Rio like raw sewage into Guanabara Bay. When the Olympics were awarded to Rio in 2007, Brazil was a rapidly growing second-world success story in a world otherwise plunging into recession. (The only category where Rio outscored Chicago, which by all rights should be hosting these games, in the IOC assessment was “government support, legal issues and public opinion.”)

In the years since, the country has descended into bankruptcy and political chaos. The president faces impeachment. Rio itself is broke. The only distraction is the Russian doping scandal, which has made the IOC look as trashy as a Rio beach at low tide (not to mention in the pocket of Vladimir Putin).

OK, enough fearmongering. This isn’t the first Olympics to take things to the wire, and there’s always enough last-minute intervention to get things on track – even in 2004 in Greece, which was way behind schedule, not to mention on its way to the kind of financial problems Brazil faces now.

In Rio and Sochi and Athens, the volume of construction required, and the inefficiency and corruption involved, left a disconcerting amount of work do be done at the last minute. But typically, and this is assuredly the case in Rio, enough money will be thrown at these problems by the time the games open officially on Friday.

That’s what happened with the Australians. While their faucet-running, toilet-flushing stress test revealed severe plumbing and electrical problems with their quarters, a swarm of tradesmen had things sorted out in a few days. It wasn’t cheap, or easy, but it got done.

Already, the potential inability of the Rio police to ensure security has been overcompensated by the federal government, which has unloaded a small army of soldiers into the city. The failure to collect and treat the sewage that flows from the massive slums – favelas – on the hills surrounding the city into the ocean, an effort that was supposed to be the games’ lasting legacy, is a shame, but visitors may not even notice (even if rowers and sailors and triathletes will). Zika? It’s winter in Brazil, and cases have been declining anyway.

Brazil was able to handle the World Cup with minimal disruption two years ago, but that was spread all over the country. These Olympics are concentrated in one city with insufficient infrastructure for day-to-day life, let alone the massive four-week influx of foreigners that comes with these Summer Games.

Ideally, the new subway line will be running, the last touches will be put on the unfinished venues and visitors will leave not only unhurt and unharmed but better off for having experienced not only the Olympics but also what is still, despite its problems, one of the world’s great, unique cities with some of its greatest beaches. Tourists have been coming to Copacabana and Ipanema for years, and they keep coming back – for good reason.

There are no guarantees, given the amount of catch-up Rio still has to do and the empty pockets of the local and regional governments, not to mention the national political chaos. President Dilma Rousseff won’t attend the opening ceremonies, and if her impeachment trial goes off as scheduled, it will become an unofficial Olympic event.

They have the Olympics every two years in some strange places and it always seems to turn out OK. But maybe this is the time it doesn’t?

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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