RIO DE JANEIRO — The snuffing out of the Olympic flame in London Sunday marks a conclusion for most, but for 2016 host city Rio de Janeiro it kicks off four years of pre-games jitters and a race against the clock to ready this notoriously laid-back beach city for the global sports showcase.
Playing Olympic host is a high-stakes bet for any country, but Brazil seems to have more riding on the games than most. The nation has enjoyed an economic surge over the past decade, a boom that saw it overtake Britain as the world's sixth biggest economy. Brazilians regard the Olympics as their grand entrance onto the world stage — and their emergency as a superpower.
Still, observers say efficiency and punctuality have never been the country's strong suit, and many are bracing for a rocky ride as Rio rushes to build the city's four main Olympic sites and undertakes a massive, pre-games infrastructure overhaul. Rio is also one of 12 Brazilian cities gearing up to host the World Cup football tournament in 2014.
"On the ground, we can expect ... cost overruns and a rush to push through projects. Cariocas (Rio residents) will see their cost of living increase, their streets clogged and the branding of their public spaces," said Christopher Gaffney, an American academic who's a visiting professor at the graduate school of architecture and urban planning at the Fluminense Federal University in Rio's sister city, Niteroi. His research focuses on preparations for the World Cup and Olympics.
"While the Brazilians will undoubtedly pull together a great party, the hangover will last for a generation," Gaffney said.
More than 230 projects are slated to be finished by the 2016 games, with the sports venues scheduled for delivery between mid-2015 and early-2016 for test events, according to the International Olympic Committee. Of those, over 65 have already been completed or are in the final stages.
That leaves a high volume of projects to be carried out simultaneously over the next four years — a feat that even Rio 2016 organizers acknowledge is tricky.
"Time is an adversary but time is also on our side," Leonardo Gryner, CEO of the Rio 2016 organizing committee, told reporters at a news conference Friday in London. "We'll get a few cold sweats but this is normal. We are on time and going according to schedule."
Rio 2016 organizers see the games as a pivotal moment in the city's history that will turn the page on the decades of slow decline and neglect that followed the loss of the capital to Brasilia in 1960. Speaking at a recent news conference, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes promised the event would leave an "enormous legacy."
City, state and local governments are investing nearly $12 billion in massive infrastructure projects they say will help revitalize derelict urban areas and ease the chronic transportation woes in this metropolis of 6 million. Beyond the sporting venues, Rio is slated to get a new metro line, a revamped airport, improved roads and a renovated port.
But many of the projects have been tainted by controversy, some even before ground was broken.
Amnesty International and the United Nations have called attention to allegations of human rights abuses in connection with the eviction of families living on land slated for Olympic and World Cup projects. Nationwide, some 170,000 people are facing threats to their housing, or already have been removed, in the 12 cities that will host World Cup matches, according to the Coalition of Popular Committees for the World Cup and the Olympics, an advocacy group for residents of the affected shantytowns.
Rio authorities insist the evictions have been carried out legally, but advocates counter that the city's compensation is grossly inadequate. In 2010, compensation averaged $16,000 per home — an amount advocates say falls far short of allowing those displaced to buy another home in Rio, one of the hottest property markets in the world.
Activists are also campaigning against the planned metro extension. They contend the chosen trajectory is less in the interest of the public good than that of well-connected lobbyists.
"In terms of public transit, the legacy of the games will be nil," said engineer Licinio Machado Rogerio, a member of The Metro that Rio Needs, a nonprofit group pushing for an alternative subway route that has received considerable support from urban planners, architects and academics. "Everyone sees the project and comes away scratching their head because it's so clearly the wrong solution."
Even the name of an Olympic stadium has sparked a polemic. The stadium slated to host the track and field events bears the name of Joao Havelange, the disgraced Brazilian former head of world soccer body FIFA.
Swiss court documents published last month showed Havelange received millions of dollars in a World Cup kickback scandal in the 1990s. He paid a Swiss court about $550,000 to end a criminal investigation into alleged embezzlement. The decision on a possible stadium name change is up to the city, but officials have insisted the name is here to stay.
Beyond the controversies, other Olympic projects have been plagued by technical mistakes.
"The preparations have barely begun and already we've seen pop up surreal examples of problems which clearly could have been avoided," read a recent article in the Veja newsweekly magazine. A drawing on the front page featured a Brazilian athlete bearing the Olympic torch so high the flames licked away at the games' five-ringed flag overhead.
The site of the equestrian events, a military zone in the north of the city, is thought to be dotted with explosives left over from trainings and will require a three-to-six month sweep to remove the forgotten ordnance.
An Olympic-sized pool built for the 2007 Pan American Games was judged inadequate to house the swimming competitions and needs a costly renovation to host the Olympic water polo and diving events. The legendary Maracana football stadium, which was overhauled for the Pan Am Games, is undergoing another upgrade ahead of the World Cup.
"Everything that was built for the Pan Am Games is obsolete, just five years on, and the Rio 2016 organizers themselves acknowledge there was no legacy from those games besides the experience of hosting a mega-event," said urban planning professor Gaffney. "This time, it's the same people in charge, with more money and fewer controls. So why will it be any different?"
Organizers acknowledged Rio's shortage of hotel rooms was the city's main weakness going back to the bid stage, which pitted the city against Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago in a 2009 vote. More than 2 million visitors entered London's Olympic Park during this year's games, but Rio's current hotel capacity stands at about 33,000 beds, including those at the "love" motels that dot the seedier neighborhoods.
During a recent United Nations conference here, Mayor Paes had to resort to decreeing a three-day public holiday, closing schools and urging residents to rent out rooms to conference participants.
For the Olympics, organizers have promised to put up to 12,000 people on cruise ships docked at the city's to-be-revamped downtown port, and generous incentives aim to spark private investment in new hotels. Eike Batista, Brazil's richest man, is building or refurbishing two hotels. Next year, organizers are to decide whether to construct additional housing villages, which Gaffney said would be turned into high-end apartments after the games.
Johnny Tucker, editor of the British architecture and design journal Blueprint, said the Brazilians were already off to a slow start compared with London four years ahead of the games, but he added he wasn't too worried about Rio's prospects.
"I think the general consensus is that they are quite a way behind but that it would all get done in the end," he said in a telephone interview. "In Brazil, working patterns are different from the U.K."1 comment on this story
Despite the litany of problems, the organizers remain doggedly optimistic.
Team members were on hand in London to learn from British experience and they've said they hope to iron out solutions to two of the main pitfalls of this year's games, the sparsely populated stadiums and pre-competition transport issues.
Rio native Joao Carlos de Figueireiro said that despite the "mess" that was sure to come, he had faith things would work out in the end.
"There are definitely things we need to work on, organization-wise," said Figueireiro, a 56-year-old barman at a neighborhood cafe, where a TV blared the Brazilian women's volleyball final against the U.S. "But we're experts at pulling rabbits out of hats at the last minute and I'm sure that's what we're going to do. At least I hope so."