As London Olympic Games end, attention turns to Rio

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 12, 2012 

— Rio, you’re up.

After a London Olympics that by nearly all accounts was a smashing success – jam-packed venues, memorable moments and little logistical chaos – the bar has been set for Rio de Janeiro, the Summer Games host in 2016.

The sultry Southern Hemisphere city, with its reputation for boisterous fans and tireless partying, gave a hint of the mood that might pervade its games with an eight-minute samba showcase at Sunday night’s closing ceremonies.

The first Olympics to be held in South America – on the heels of the 2014 soccer World Cup, also taking place in Rio and other Brazilian cities – will herald Brazil’s status as a rising economic power that has surpassed Britain as the world’s sixth biggest economy.

But Cariocas, as Rio’s people are called, are known for passion, not planning, and most expect a frantic race to complete the hundreds of construction projects slated to be ready by 2016. Two major sports venues that were retrofitted for the Pan American Games five years ago need to be overhauled again.

As part of some $14 billion in infrastructure improvements, nine facilities are being built from scratch – including the 185-acre Olympic Park in the western district of Barra de Tijuca, where construction started just last month. A planned nine-mile extension of a metro line isn’t expected to be completed until the end of 2015.

“We’ll get a few cold sweats but this is normal. We are on time and going according to schedule,” Leonardo Gryner, the CEO of Rio 2016, told reporters in London last week.

To be sure, the city can seduce the world. From the famous Copacabana beach, which will host beach volleyball and the swimming marathon, to the backdrop of Sugarloaf Mountain and lush hillsides, Rio figures to offer one of the most visually arresting games in memory.

Like London, Rio plans to present itself as a vibrant, multiethnic metropolis, albeit one with a little more soul than the famously reserved English.

“The beauty of the Olympics is that in every city you experience a different culture,” Gryner said. “In Brazil we like to party. Whenever we put a show on at the beach we manage to grab a huge crowd."

But already organizers have courted controversy with the decision to name the main athletics stadium for Joao Havelange, the former president of the FIFA world soccer association, who was convicted of accepting $1 million in bribes in the 1990s.

Gryner said the controversy shouldn’t detract from the games, but added that the decision to name the stadium for Havelange was made by city authorities.

“We are very proud of what Mr. Havelange has done for sport worldwide and for sport in Brazil in particular,” Gryner said.

Human rights groups also charge that tens of thousands of slum residents face threats to their homes to make way for new Olympic and World Cup construction. Organizers say that the residents are being compensated, but according to activists the amounts being offered are far below fair market value.

For American fans, it’ll be a different games. Decorated Olympians Michael Phelps and Misty May-Treanor are among the athletes who’ve said they won’t compete in Rio. Men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski won’t be there either, and with NBA commissioner David Stern pushing to change the men’s basketball tournament to allow only players younger than 23, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and other stars could also be watching from home.

On the bright side, U.S. TV viewers should have less to gripe about because Rio is just one time zone ahead of the East Coast, meaning that NBC tape delays should be minimal.

Those who make it to Rio may have to contend with Brazil’s rabid fans, whose style of cheering can strike the uninitiated as a little excessive.

Brazil supporters loudly booed their squad’s U.S. opponents during Saturday’s women’s volleyball final, and afterward, Brazilian players celebrated their gold medal by dancing and singing during the medal presentation.

"They celebrate a little differently than Americans do,” said U.S. volleyballer Logan Tom.

Brazil’s coach, Jose Roberto Guimaraes, said his country was determined to be as gracious a host as the English.

“As Brazil gets ready to host the next Olympics, 2012 will most certainly be a source of inspiration,” Guimaraes said. “We hope to be able to improve upon (London) and Brazilians will be doing their very best to make sure this happens.”

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