RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — After enduring months of criticism over busted deadlines and inflated budgets, the Brazilian organizers of the Pan American Games were in no mood for more drubbing just a week before the event's July 13 opening ceremonies in this seaside city.
More than 5,600 athletes from around the Western Hemisphere are pouring into Rio, and many have praised the venues built for the world's second biggest multi-sport event. The organizers felt they had proved they were up to the job.
Four words written on a dry-erase board in the games' sprawling press center dashed the spirit of self-congratulation: "Welcome to the Congo!"
The message, written by a member of the U.S. delegation and blown up in a photograph Saturday on the front page of Brazil's second-biggest newspaper, O Globo, sparked immediate Brazilian outrage and prompted U.S. officials to apologize and send the message's author home. The newspaper called the message a prejudicial dig at Brazil.
Brazilian organizers have bet billions of dollars on the success of the games, which they see as a dress rehearsal for possibly hosting the World Cup soccer tournament in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016.
"We see this not just as a stand-alone event but as the transition of Brazil into a worldwide sporting power," said Carlos Roberto Osorio, general secretary of the Brazilian organizing committee. "The Pan American Games are our pass to the Olympics."
Yet earlier this year, many in Brazil, such as soccer legend Pele, had publicly worried whether the games would prove an expensive flop.
Originally budgeted at about $400 million, putting on the games, which end July 29, has cost the country nearly $2 billion in public money, according to federal legislators.
That includes the cost of building the new, 45,000-seat Joao Havelange Stadium, where the opening ceremony will be held, a 15,000-seat indoor arena and a 5,000-seat aquatic center. Many of the venues were finished months behind schedule, with workers putting finishing touches on some facilities days before the opening ceremony.
Organizers said costs skyrocketed because they modified original plans for the venues to make them Olympic-quality. They also blamed federal bureaucracy for slowing the process of procuring land for the venues and for legal battles with contractors that delayed construction.
"It was a very difficult process because Brazilian legislation makes getting funding from the federal government for this kind of project very laborious," said Rio Mayor Cesar Maia, whose government has spent more than $500 million on the games. "The (Joao Havelange) stadium should have been finished six months before. The arena should have been done six months before."
Yet the logistical nightmare may just be beginning.
Athletes coming to Rio will face an air traffic system that has been in meltdown since last year as flight controllers stage slowdowns to protest work conditions. Thousands of passengers have been stranded over the past weeks by delayed and cancelled flights.
Adding to the chaos, airport workers demanding pay raises are threatening to strike in at least three cities, including at the country's main international airport in Sao Paulo, starting on Wednesday.
Rio state police are also battling the city's powerful drug gangs over control of sprawling slums not far from where some events will be held. More than 40 people have been killed and nearly 80 injured in more than two months of fighting.
Brazil's federal security secretary Luiz Fernando Correa said a police force he's coordinating of some 18,000 people will ensure that the games proceed smoothly.
"Rio de Janeiro has a great tradition of guaranteeing security at these kind of events, and it'll do that again this time," he said.
The challenge for athletes now is to ignore the controversy and concentrate on winning, said U.S. equestrian team member Christopher Hickey, of Colora, Md., who will be riding as part of the national team for the first time.
The games could be a springboard to next year's Olympics in Beijing for many of the more than 600 U.S. athletes coming to Rio. Athletes can qualify for Olympic events by winning gold medals this month. Such qualifications are on the line in 16 sports, including water polo, the triathlon and field hockey.
The United States, followed by Cuba, Canada and Argentina, has won the most medals since the first Pan American Games were held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1951. U.S. athletes are top ranked in sports such as bowling, karate, boxing and the modern pentathlon.
"By doing well, it put us in the position of being seen by international judges and improving our chances of qualifying for the Olympics," Hickey said. "We will fight for our medal. That's for sure."
The games also promise dramatic match-ups between the United States and political rivals in the region, such as Cuba and Venezuela, in popular sports such as baseball and boxing.
Brazilian athletes said more is at stake than medals for their country in these games, although they hoped that competing in front of a pumped-up, hometown crowd will improve their chances.
"Our people will be here by the thousands, and it's going to be very intense," said star gymnast Daiane dos Santos. "Brazil has to show that we're not only competitive but that we can put together a Pan or an Olympics as well as anyone else can."