Photographer: Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images

A Golf Cart Almost Hit Me: Disabled Fans Say Olympics Fell Short

  • Critics decry lack of parking and volunteer assistance
  • Part of Rio’s bid for the Games included accessibility

Getting to Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic venues hasn’t been easy for most spectators. It’s been even harder for people with disabilities.

Most venues are a long walk from public transportation. Handicapped parking is non-existent. Once inside, there is little information about wheelchair assistance, or getting a ride in a golf cart.

“I only saw one golf cart for disabled people in the Olympic Park, and it almost hit me,” said Heitor Neto, 44, a telecommunications technician who has paraplegia and uses a wheelchair. “The Olympics are much worse than the World Cup, and I expect the Paralympics to be the same garbage.”

By law, all of Brazil’s public buildings and arenas must have ramps, elevators or other accommodations for people in wheelchairs or on crutches, and part of Rio’s bid for the Olympic and Paralympic Games included making the city more accessible. Now a cash crunch threatens the Paralympics, which are scheduled to start Sept. 7, and some advocates for the disabled say that Rio 2016’s efforts to make the Games accessible ultimately fell short.

“It is much better than Brazil customarily does, but especially because we’re going to do Paralympics, accessibility should be near-perfect,” said Raphaela Athayde, adjunct superintendent at handicapped advocacy group IBDD. “Once we have a lot of people with physical, hearing and visual disabilities in the Olympic Park, with the bus station so far away, it will be a serious problem.”

Rio has long been a challenging environment for the disabled. Its famed Portuguese-style sidewalks consist of small stones forming mosaics and are often uneven or pocked with gaps. Some restaurants have their bathrooms on another floor, and no elevator. Most buildings don’t have access ramps.

"I know the mayor has invested in the city to make it accessible," said Craig Spence, a spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee. "You don’t make a city perfectly accessible in seven years. I hope the games act as a catalyst and this is just the start, and not the finish."

Regina Cohen, coordinator of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s center to improve accessibility, also gave Rio credit for its efforts. Yet when Cohen, who uses a wheelchair, took Rio’s freshly-inaugurated metro line to Olympic Park, she faced a large gap between the train and the platform, with no metro staff was nearby to help. That meant four fellow passengers had to carry her into and out of the train car.

“I thought with the new stations they would do it right,” Cohen said. “The stations are very beautiful, but the accessibility situation is critical.”

Rio 2016 referred Bloomberg to Vanessa Goulart, executive director of CVI-Rio, the non-profit organization that consulted on accessibility for the Olympics. She said many works completed for the Olympics wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and information about how disabled fans should reach arenas is available online and in spectator guides, which some didn’t consult.

“I think the games are meeting expectations,” she said. “The things I saw that aren’t working can be fixed. It isn’t because they weren’t thought of, but perhaps because of a lack of logistics and not exactly preparing so well.”

The temporary stadium built for beach volleyball, for example, is accessible via ramp, and there is a special viewing area for people in wheelchairs. But volunteers have failed to assist people with disabilities, Cohen and others said.

Following a contest on Aug. 13, spectators were told to exit on the ocean side of the stadium, meaning they had to walk a large loop in order to return to the street. A disabled man was directed to do the same, even as he leaned forward heavily onto his cane and coughed chronically. Neither National Guard soldiers nor volunteers knew how to find him him a wheelchair.

Organizers this week set up a special wheelchair exit from the arena to reduce the distance to the street, according to Rio 2016’s press office. Those in wheelchairs had been getting stuck in the sand, according to Athayde, who has surveyed most Olympics venues and interviewed disabled attendees. 

“Obviously we’re learning and making adaptations as we do across the games in all areas, including accessibility,” Rio 2016’s press office said in a statement. Most volunteers did an online module about accessibility before general on-site training, and new training for Paralympics volunteers starts next week.

Still, many of the 50,000 existing volunteers remain poorly informed about accessibility, said Goulart. The reason golf carts are scarce isn’t because there aren’t enough of them: it’s because organizers failed to account for recharging their batteries, which can take as long as eight hours, she said.

Without carts, people in wheelchairs have struggled to climb long or steep ramps at some stadiums. After Usain Bolt won the 100-meter dash at the Engenhao arena on Aug. 14, departing spectators had to help push a disabled man in a wheelchair up a ramp to the railway station’s entrance. The ramp was built specifically for the Olympics.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE