One year from the start of the 2016 Olympics, host Rio de Janeiro is pleased with its progress, but even as its scenic splendor and irrepressible spirit command attention, the city still has obstacles to overcome.
This story appears in the August 17, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
For an image to capture an Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, you could do worse than to choose one sport and the venue that will host it: archery and the Sambódromo, or Sambadrome. Archers at the 2016 Games will file into that famed site in central Rio, the scene of so much communal wriggling every year at Carnival, to draw back their arrows and strive for an individual stillness. With one year to go before the Opening Ceremony, that's essentially how things stand in Rio. A Cidade Maravilhosa, the Marvelous City, draws a bead on its targets under unforgiving deadline pressure, even as Brazil's economy stalls, a critical environmental promise goes unmet and the world anxiously watches.
"We may be a samba people, but we're a country that wants to show we can run with the big dogs," says Ricardo Prado, a swimming silver medalist at the 1984 Olympics who is the competition manager for aquatic sports for the Rio 2016 organizing committee. "We won't be as perfect as London, but we're going to follow every requirement, and we'll have the Brazilian soul in it. If there are any doubts, the ['14] World Cup showed we could do it. I tell my team: Guys, the world came, partied, played soccer and had a great time. We're just going to have to do it again, only in one city and with 28 sports."
But things are more complicated than that. Such is usually the case in Brazil, a country that, as bossa nova legend Antônio Carlos Jobim once put it, is not for beginners.
When Rio won the right to host the 2016 Olympics, in Copenhagen six years ago, Brazil was swishing a prosperous derrière. Upon learning of the city's victory, on Oct. 2, 2009, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—known simply, soccer-style, as Lula—celebrated madly, clutching the Brazilian flag. The motto on that flag reads ordem e progresso, Order and Progress, but members of the Brazilian delegation showed very little of the former as they began to realize how much of the latter the moment portended. Closing his eyes and trying to calm himself amid the joyous scrum, Lula placed his left hand to his brow. A picture of the scene, captured by an AP photographer, highlighted the president's missing pinky, lost as a teenager in a lathe accident in a São Paulo auto factory.
The tens of thousands of Cariocas (Rio natives) who celebrated on Copacabana Beach understood how their bootstrapping president's own journey, from grade school dropout to the highest office in the land, mirrored their country's. But if Brazil landed the Games as a nation on the move, it will host them as, at best, a country struggling to get going again. Lula's handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, elected to a second term 10 months ago, is looking at single-digit approval ratings, a corruption scandal at the government-controlled oil company Petrobras, and an economy beset by creeping inflation and widespread job losses.
Yet in these challenges, organizers see opportunity. There will be no temptation to stage a spendthrift bacchanal reminiscent of Beijing or Sochi. "We'll deliver excellent Games, but we're not going for luxury," says Mário Andrada, Rio 2016's executive director of communications. "None of our stadiums will light up when spectators drink. We won't drive everybody around in a Porsche. We won't have an espresso machine in every venue, but there'll be hot, delicious coffee. If we had a money-printing machine, O.K., but our economy lost 345,000 jobs last year."
Preparations for the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio ran perilously late, and the budget was busted by a factor of six. Only six of the 35 promised transportation projects were completed on time for the 2014 World Cup, and publicly financed stadiums in the cities of Manaus and Cuiabá could find no private takers to operate them afterward. The Rio Olympics seemed fated to suffer from similar organizational shortcomings when, in April '14, IOC vice president John Coates of Australia, a veteran of nine Games, described preparations as "the worst I have experienced." Today organizers seem to have at least made the podium in the Expectations Games. "We are the last country in the universe anyone would expect to be on time and on budget," Andrada says, "yet here we are."
Olympic organizers seem to have gotten the message from massive street protests before the World Cup, which decried Brazil's corrupt soccer establishment and called instead for investments in education, health care and public transportation. The organizers highlight the progress of construction on a subway link between central Rio and Barra da Tijuca to the west, site of the Olympic Park—one reason the number of Cariocas who use public transport is expected to jump from 16% in 2009 to 60% post-Games. They cite the free English lessons offered to anyone who simply applies to volunteer. And they point to the Olympic Park's handball venue, the so-called Arena of the Future, which will be broken down after the Games and reassembled to create four schools in neighborhoods that desperately need them. "Almost 60% of the budget comes from the private sector," says Roberto Ainbinder, project director of Rio's Municipal Olympic Company. "Never at an Olympics has there been so much. There's a concern not to build white elephants. The goal has been to save the public money."
But, again, Brazil 101 is not a simple course. Private investment may be a way to preserve the public purse, but the public-private partnerships (called PPPs) at the heart of the Rio Olympics have a flip side. In exchange for that private money, developers exact a price: the right to take title to real estate in a radically transformed Rio once the Games are over. The Olympics have served as a pretext for razing favelas (densely populated shantytowns) and skirting environmental regulations. Build the Olympic golf course? Fine, but give us the right to construct high-rises around it. Throw up the 31 towers that will house 18,000 members of the Olympic family during the Games? O.K., but we want to turn the athletes' village into the Ilha Pura (Unspoiled Island) luxury condominiums, whose sales office is already open. A corruption scandal, which came to light over the past year, revealed kickbacks to politicians or their parties from construction companies with contracts to build Olympic and World Cup infrastructure.
The remorselessness with which the city has depopulated Vila Autódromo, the favela that fringes the Olympic Park, underscores how politicians cater to developers' interests. "If the U.S. has a military-industrial complex, Brazil has a construction-industrial complex," says Rio native Juliana Barbassa, a journalist and the author of Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. "If you look at what these companies are getting, it's the transferring of public wealth into private hands. The urgency of the Games, the constant rhetoric of 'the world is watching,' is used to push these projects through without due diligence."
The London Olympics unified an outlying quarter, the East End, with the center of a city. But at least London earmarked some of its athletes' village for affordable housing. Rio's forced relocations echo those in Beijing and Sochi, which left citizens embittered and human rights groups up in arms. Although Brazilian cities suffer from an acute housing shortage, activists estimate that 8,000 families nationwide will have been moved because of the World Cup and the Olympics.
Vila Autódromo began as a fishing village that sprang up on the edge of Rio's old Formula One racetrack in the 1960s. As Barra boomed, the favela became home to the maids, gardeners and security guards who staffed the gated high-rises and the malls that give western Rio the car-culture feel of the South Florida megalopolis. Vila Autódromo had running water, electricity and regular trash collection, and it suffered none of the drug gangs that characterize favelas in some other parts of Rio. Yet back in the early 1990s, Eduardo Paes, now Rio's mayor but then a 23-year-old deputy mayor for the city's western district, made one of the first attempts to wipe out the community, around the time Rio hosted the '92 Earth Summit. Vila Autódromo somehow survived, then outlasted another attempt at eradication before the 2007 Pan Am Games.
But the Olympics is proving to be too strong a force. After years of passive-aggressive harassment by the government—reassurances that residents could stay followed by sudden demurrals—Vila Autódromo sits nearly empty. Nine out of 10 residents have accepted deals, including accommodations in a new housing project a few minutes' drive away. The holdouts scrawl their resistance on the walls that remain. Though never formally accused of corruption, the mayor is often the target: MODALIDADE CORRUPçãO: MEDALHA DE OURO PARA DUDU PAES (Corruption competition: gold medal for Dudu Paes) and, alongside a caricature of him as Pinocchio, PAES MENTE (Paes lies).
But the graffiti is muted by the pounding of jackhammers at work on the adjacent main press center and a 25-story hotel. "We've become merchandise to the government," says Hamilton Isidoro de Souza, who's in his 20s and still lives in a half-destroyed structure in Vila Autódromo that once housed eight people from three families. He has no idea where he'll be in a year. "The prefeitura [local government] takes off [the lids of] the bueiros [sewer pipes] to make life uncomfortable for us," says De Souza. "And they don't collect the garbage anymore."
On paper—certainly on postcard—there's no more dazzling setting for an Olympics than Rio de Janeiro. The NBC cameras will love it. If London's venues showcased historical grandeur, Rio's will highlight natural beauty: curved lines and bolts of green, blue and white. Rio 2016 organizers take inspiration from the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the last Summer Games in a Latin country: The Rio Olympics will feature three venue clusters in addition to Olympic Park, and a reclaimed port as a centerpiece of its legacy.
Soccer will take place where it's meant to, in the storied Maracanã stadium, with Brazilians' second-favorite sport, volleyball, next door in the cozy Maracanãzinho. The cluster in the northwest, Deodoro, home to old generals' residences and a military base, will host shooting and equestrian competitions, with an overlay of youth sports: BMX, whitewater canoeing and mountain biking, as well as one of the Games' live sites (where events are shown on large screens for non-ticket-holders). And the boats and open-water swimmers usually exiled far from the other Olympic action will take over the downtown of this most nautical of big cities, with sailors on Guanabara Bay, swimmers cutting through the surf off Copacabana Beach, and rowers and canoeists plying Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (in what Cariocas wryly call Suvaco do Cristo, or Christ's Armpit, beneath the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer).
The wide shots will be jaw-dropping. But this is a city not quite ready for its close-up. "To live in Rio is to be so aware of its potential, but also to be constantly confronted by its failures," says Barbassa, who spent 2½ years as a correspondent for the AP in Rio. "Every day I'd go for a run and see the beauty and smell the sewage. The possibilities and the failures, it's heartbreaking. That's what happened with the Olympic bid—we set priorities that weren't our own. There's the city we sold, and there's the city we live in.
"Yes, Rio will pull everything together in the end. The Olympics will look good and be fun. But the cost.... They basically planned it as they went along. The culture works that way, from the doormen to the governor."
In no category will Rio fall shorter of its sales pitch than in water quality. Two thirds of the sewage generated by Rio's residents goes untreated into some public body of water. Guanabara Bay is essentially a septic tank; 8,200 liters of raw sewage pour into it each second, and every day Cariocas clog it with another 100 tons of garbage. Rio won the Olympics in part with a promise to clean up the bay. Today everyone concedes that won't happen.
Organizers still hope to stage the sailing competition in the bay. They intend to clear the course of floating debris by using "eco-boats" equipped with nets, and they will count on the dry Brazilian weather, with favorable winds and less effluvial runoff, to deliver acceptable water quality. The state of Rio de Janeiro claims to have made progress in its cleanup effort; officials say that the bay, 12% clean when Rio won the Games, is nearly 50% clean now.
"Those numbers don't mean a lot, because there's no real technical way to measure," says Torben Grael, the Brazilian national sailing coach, whose family will count three generations of Olympic sailors, if his daughter, Martine, or son, Marco, competes next year. "But even if it's not 100%, we hope we can put together the agreements [to finish the cleanup]. That's what happened in Sydney. The harbor wasn't the way they wanted for the Games, but all the agreements were in place. If we can have something similar to that, it would be something to celebrate."
But the government has yet to earmark enough funding to address the source of the problem. "Politicians don't like to build sewage treatment plants, because sewage pipes run underground," Andrada says. "They prefer roads and bridges and things they can put their names on.
"There's nothing we can do about it in the time we have. But we need to keep talking about it, to pay attention, because the bay is the heart of Rio. It will be clean enough for competition. But it needs to be clean, period."
On July 19, Andrada told SI that "there's no risk to the health of the athletes." But 11 days later the AP published the results of its investigation into water quality in and around the Rio venues. In four separate readings taken over the previous five months, conducted by a Brazilian virologist and audited by a marine biologist and a public health official, both based in the U.S., tests identified "dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria from sewage in venues where athletes will compete." In the lagoon, the bay and even off Copacabana Beach, virologist Fernando Spilki found concentrations of human adenoviruses consistent with raw sewage. Human adenoviruses, which are found in human waste, can cause diarrhea, vomiting and respiratory infections.
Brazilian authorities didn't react to the AP's findings by diving fully clothed into the bay, as Rio State Environment Secretary André Corrêa did three months earlier to assuage concerns about water quality. But the AP report will renew calls for the sailing to be moved out to sea, far from the Marina da Glória, where it's currently planned. And the news casts a more disturbing light on the massive die-off in the lagoon in April, when city officials attributed the sudden appearance of 37 tons of rotting fish carcasses to a sudden change in water temperature caused by heavy rains.
From the World Cup's shortcomings, Andrada says, Rio 2016 organizers learned that "if you have a deliverable, you deliver it, or you're just a bag of wind. We talk legacy all the time. In Rio it will be very clear: Did we transform the port area? Did the subway get to Barra? And did we clean the bay?"
The answers, for now: Yes. Probably. And no way, nohow, João.
Xá Comigo is a popular expression in Rio. Figuratively it means, Leave it to me. For generations that statement has been less a literal promise than a vague affirmation of solidarity and goodwill. But Cariocas realize that a year from now they'll be judged not by bravado or good intentions but by the letter of their pledges. And so they permit themselves a cautious pride as they prepare to welcome the world. "I can always work on apartment buildings," says Edinor Mato Grosso de Oliveira, one of the construction workers building the three Arenas Cariocas in the Olympic Park. "But this is special, because the whole world will see it."
Ainbinder, the city's Olympic Park project director, says he incants a mantra to himself: "The Games must serve the city, not the other way around." Several weeks ago he caught a glimpse of the renovated port, the Praça Mauá, where samba was born early last century. Once a decaying eyesore, it's now a collection of gardens, bike paths and cultural attractions including the Santiago Calatrava--designed Museum of Tomorrow. "The transformation of this piece of Rio, you can see it," Ainbinder says. "You don't have to wait until 2016. It has happened."
Maurício Cruz Lopes, general director of the athletes' village in Barra, points to high-speed elevators: "The IOC asked that elevators allow for the evacuation of everybody within 30 minutes." The lifts are 70% faster than those found in a typical Brazilian high-rise.
And in the Rio 2016 offices, just a few blocks down the street from the Sambadrome, staffers' cubicles are festooned with Brazilian flags. Left over from the World Cup, they still hang, notwithstanding the host country's 7--1 semifinal loss to Germany, as reminders of the national honor everyone is working to uphold.
Here Amanda dos Santos Pereira, a college student from Petrópolis—the mountain town outside of Rio that was the summer residence of Brazil's 19th-century emperors—volunteers in the sanitation and waste collection department. She takes inspiration from Renato Sorriso, the municipal street sweeper who, cleaning up during Carnival in 1997, broke out into an improvised dance routine that turned him into a nationwide celebrity and, ultimately, a central figure in Rio's bid campaign.
"I hope Brazil wins medals, but I also hope that things work well," Pereira says. "That the traffic gets better and that the city works better. I hope we can show the world a different part of Brazil—how we can be friendly and welcoming, but can also organize things without problems."
Brazil has never won Olympic gold in soccer. To do so at home would help atone for the Seleção's embarrassment last summer. "I think Brazil needs this medal, but it's not the most important thing," Pereira says. "Education, health care, transport—that is the meaning of the Olympic Games. Legacy."
To reach her office, or to get to Rio's Federal University, where she studies design, Pereira used to spend 2½ hours covering the 40 miles from her home, as a result of the world's third-worst traffic, after Mexico City's and Istanbul's. She hopes her commute will be cut in half after the transport upgrades are done. A direct line—no shimmying, few stops and starts, less samba than an arrow launched straight and true—now that would be an Olympian feat.
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