Now to Rio de Janeiro, full of Olympic 2016 jitters

By Jenny Barchfield

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Aug. 12 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

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"Everything that was built for the Pan Am Games is obsolete, just five years on, and the Rio 2016 organizers themselves acknowledge there was no legacy from those games besides the experience of hosting a mega-event,"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."

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."

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