Seven years in the making, it’s showtime for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the first in South America and among a scant few held in developing nations.
It’s been a bumpy run-up to the Rio games, both in Brazil and abroad. The host nation has struggled to put needed roads, transportation and stadiums in place, and there are numerous complaints of inadequate housing for athletes.
Days before the world’s TV screens lock in on the games Friday, the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency are battling openly over who’s to blame for widespread Russian doping and the ban of many Russian athletes.
There is no shortage of subplots, either.
Will five-time Olympian Michael Phelps add to his 22 medals? Can Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt again strike his legendary pose? Is a fifth gold medal in the cards for the U.S. women’s soccer team? Might host Brazil finally capture Olympic gold in men’s soccer, a feat that’s eluded the five-time World Cup champs?
Non-sporting subplots include a fire near accommodations, contaminated water for rowers and sailors, the risk of street crime for athletes and visitors, and a last-minute rush to get everything done – the latter hardly unique to this host city.
Getting to the starting line has been a challenge amid a rough year for Brazil, mired in its deepest political crisis in decades.
Nothing against the Olympic Games, but I don’t think Rio should have hosted these games.
Eron Helo, city council candidate
It faces, for the first time, real terror threats and the spreading fear of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that brings to pregnant women the risk of children with serious birth defects. A travel advisory like the one in place for Brazil was issued Monday by U.S. health officials for parts of Miami.
Pile onto this a deep recession, an unhappy citizenry that at times deliberately has extinguished the passing Olympic torch on its route to Rio and concerns that the expensive games might not leave much of lasting value for the average Carioca, as Rio residents are known.
“Nothing against the Olympic Games, but I don’t think Rio should have hosted these games,” said Eron Helo, a candidate for city council in Rio.
Complaining of the $4.1 billion price tag, Helo, who dresses as Batman at protest rallies, cited the lack of basic medicines at state hospitals and crumbling housing across what’s known as the Marvelous City.
Organizers here are anxious for all that to melt away when the games begin Friday afternoon with what they promise will be a spectacular opening ceremony.
It will feature distinct elements of Brazilian culture, ranging from the sultry samba of Carnival to its Japanese heritage in Sao Paulo, its legacy as the world’s most populous African-descent nation outside Africa and the fierce Yanomami tribesmen in the Amazon rain forest.
McClatchy caught a peek of what’s to come as dancers awaited their turn to file into Maracaná stadium during a practice run Sunday night. The costumes were elaborate, and the joy on the faces of the Brazilian dancers was as evident as it is on the first night of Carnival.
The White House said Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry would head the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony, which includes famed Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz.
The games will begin in earnest Saturday, when the first medals will be awarded in swimming events. The competitions will take place in four zones of the sprawling city.
One certainty is that the issue of doping will garner more attention than ever before. That’s because sporting power Russia saw its entire track and field team banned from the games in mid-June for what the International Association of Athletics Federations said was state-sponsored cheating.
The International Olympic Committee, however, left it up to individual sporting federations to determine whether Russian athletes could compete. McClatchy was at Rio’s international airport when arriving athletes from Australia were told July 26 that their delegation had just grown. Some Russian rowers were out, and some Australian rowers were now in. Last Friday, the International Weightlifting Federation announced that it was banning Russian male and female lifters from the games. That opened slots for competitors from smaller countries such as El Salvador and Albania.
Brazil’s handling of doping tests will be under intense scrutiny. The World Anti-Doping Agency, six weeks from the start of the games, suspended Rio’s Ladetec drug-testing lab June 24, citing “nonconformity” with international standards.
It was an embarrassing blow to Brazil, which a week later sacked the head of its own anti-doping agency. But in an about-face, the World Anti-Doping Agency reinstated Ladetec on July 20, saying all concerns had been addressed.
Brazil is unique in that it is one of the few large nations that had been largely free from the threat of terror attacks. But that changed after a spate of horrific acts in Europe in June and July, carried out by Islamic State loyalists and sympathizers, created a wave of concerns about lone-wolf attacks in Rio. In recent months, jihadists have taken to social media with Portuguese-language messages calling on sympathizers to attack the games.
Adding to the tensions, Brazil detained about a dozen men across the country, including one outside Rio, who allegedly had a plan to acquire AK-47’s from neighboring Paraguay and attack the games.
The host nation has deployed heavily armed soldiers along main routes near the Olympic venue zones, near luxury hotels and around the stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies will be.
Given Brazil’s high levels of street crime, local police have been deployed in large numbers along bustling tourist areas such as Copacabana beach. Even so, local news reports said Chinese hurdler Shi Dongpeng had been robbed in front of his hotel after a man vomited on him to create a distraction.
In a literal bump, South Korean cyclist Kim Ok-Cheol, 21, was struck by a car while training Tuesday morning on the steep inclines of the road that leads through the Tijuca National Forest, home to the famed Christ the Redeemer statue. The Rio daily O Globo showed photographs of the broken windshield of the car that struck the athlete. There was no immediate word on his condition.
Australia’s national team, which has vociferously complained about lodging, had laptops stolen during a fire-related evacuation. Its women’s water polo team is now in quarantine, The Sydney Morning Herald reported Tuesday, after what’s politely called a gastro outbreak.
Australian basketball star Andrew Bogut, who played for the Golden State Warriors in the NBA until a recent trade to the Dallas Mavericks, fired off a number of sarcastic tweets (@andrewbogut) after arriving Tuesday at the Olympic village.
Read one: “At #IOCLuxuryLodging we believe a bed is not vital for sleep. Fine tuned athletes can sleep standing up.” Bogut fired off another, accusing International Olympic Committee leaders of enjoying their downtown penthouses.
The U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams enjoy better accommodations. The teams will stay aboard the SilverSea Cruises luxury liner Silver Cloud, docked near downtown Rio.
The games begin against a complicated political backdrop, and the problems are hardly what then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had in mind when he wept upon hearing the news in October 2009 that Rio had defeated Madrid in a landslide for the honor of hosting the games.
Lula, as the former president is known, called it “the most emotional day of my life.”
But he won’t be at the games. He faces prosecution for alleged obstruction of justice. His handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, won’t be there, either, facing impeachment proceedings just days after the games end Aug. 21. Protests for and against the ruling Workers Party were held across Brazil on Sunday.
Brazil joins Mexico City (1968), Seoul, South Korea (1988), and Beijing (2008) as developing nation cities hosting the Summer Games.
Since the Mexico City games, five Summer Olympics have been in Europe, if you include the ill-fated 1980 games in Moscow, boycotted by the United States. Three have been in North America (Montreal, Los Angeles and Atlanta) and two in Asia (Seoul and Beijing). Sydney hosted the 2000 games.
Several International Olympic Committee members broke their silence about problems in Rio. In a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, longtime IOC member from Norway Gerhard Heiberg was quoted as saying, “Rio has been the biggest challenge we ever faced.”
The problems may make it more difficult for Africa to secure a bid to host the Olympics. It is the only inhabited continent never to have hosted the games. Tokyo is the 2020 host.