Rio Olympics Work Was a Mess and Then Something Curious Happened

  • More than 95% of venues for the Summer Games are now complete
  • A rare bright spot in a country beset by recession and scandal

In early 2014, a senior Olympic Committee official returned from a trip to Rio de Janeiro and declared Brazil’s preparations for the Summer Games to be the worst he’d ever seen. In the two years since, a crippling recession set in, dozens of construction executives were ensnared in a nationwide corruption scandal and the president has been pushed to the brink of impeachment.

QuickTake Brazil’s Highs and Lows

And the preparations?

They’re basically fine now, actually. In what is emerging as a rare bright spot in a country buffeted by crisis on all sides, the organizing committee is saying that more than 95 percent of the venues are complete some four months ahead of the opening ceremony and, what’s more, data shows spending has largely remained under control.

An aerial of the athlete’s village and park in Rio de Janeiro in 2014.

Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Hand-wringing over the status of construction projects, of course, has been part of just about every Olympic Games played in recent memory -- especially those held in developing countries. But if there was ever a time that angst seemed justified, it was Rio 2016. Even the city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, acknowledged that after the corruption probe began, there was a steady stream of skeptics telling him that the construction work would get derailed. “It didn’t,” he said in a recent interview. “And I can guarantee you it won’t.”

That’s not to say that the Games are free of problems. Some of the projects, such as a behind-schedule track for the new velodrome, remain a concern; the outbreak of the Zika virus is testing health-care infrastructure; and Brazilians are for the most part disinterested in the games as of right now. Only about half of the tickets have been sold, a percentage so low that no secondary market has yet to develop. (Resale is technically illegal in Brazil, but there’s been no need for such a marketplace anyway given how many seats remain unsold.)

Back in 2014, though, ticket sales were the least of Rio’s problems. That April -- just a few months before Brazil would successfully host the World Cup -- an International Olympic Committee vice president named John Coates told a forum in Sydney that the construction delays in Rio had become “critical.” Not even Athens, a city that famously had finished venues on the eve of the 2004 Games, was as bad as this, Coates had said.

Aerial view of the Olympic Village on Feb. 3, 2016.

Photographer: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP via Getty Images

‘Different World’

The message was heard back in Brazil. Shortly thereafter, federal and local governments sorted out differences over who would foot the bill for several projects, a step that proved crucial in speeding up the work.

Jules Boykoff, a professor at Oregon’s Pacific University who’s authored a book on the history of the Olympics, said the turnaround has been stark. "It’s not perfect, but compared to the concern that Coates voiced with a full throat two years ago, it’s a different world,” said Boykoff.

Even with the progress that’s been made, the national tumult has sapped public enthusiasm for the Games. Most Brazilians are focused on events in the capital city, where President Dilma Rousseff is struggling to fight off impeachment and her predecessor, the man who helped bring the Olympics and World Cup to Brazil, is facing possible arrest stemming from the ever-deepening corruption probe. Political protests and a budget crisis in every corner of government have raised new concerns about security, and it’s unclear how turnover in the president’s cabinet -- including the tourism minister, who tendered his resignation last week -- will affect the Games.

Countless members of the political class and business community have been caught up in the pay-for-play graft ring. Among them is Marcelo Odebrecht, whose company has been responsible for billions of reais in Olympic projects. Police and prosecutors are investigating two projects directly related to the Games: an urban renewal project in Rio’s downtown port area and a subway line, which will transport fans from the hotel district to the competition sites.

"We are organizing a huge party, and we feel sometimes the nation is not in the mood for celebration,” said Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada. "So we have about four months to help the population change this mood."

The venues, if nothing else, will be ready.

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