BEAUTY AND CALAMITY
Rio Games has both in equal parts
The normal buildup to an Olympic Games follows a predictable pattern, best summarized as: Odd choice of host country. Deep concerns over cost. Citizens, environmentalists revolt.
Organizers trim bells and whistles.
Construction delays threaten readiness. High-ranking officials fired. IOC visits, reads riot act. New leaders promise venues/ transportation will be ready.
Shoddy, hurry-up construction results in fatalities.
Paint still drying as Games open.
Not all Olympics are like this, and many somehow succeed despite the dire predictions.
But 100 days out come Wednesday, the Rio de Janeiro Games are checking all the boxes; not merely following the familiar pattern but elevating each element of the chaos to levels even Athens in 2004 never reached.
Unlike Greece, which didn’t suffer the depths of its economic crisis until after the Olympic circus left town, Brazil’s economy has melted down in advance, with its worst recession since the 1930s.
There’s no money for anything, apparently not even sanitation.
Moreover, the Brazilian government is embroiled in a corruption scandal, president Dilma Rousseff is trying not to get herself impeached, and the next untarnished person to emerge as a potential successor might be the first.
High-ranking Olympic organizing committee members and city officials are implicated in payoff schemes. Plans to clean up the sewer-level pollution of the Games sailing venue in Guanabara Bay have barely made a dent in the floating waste problem.
The Olympic golf course construction was buried in protests and accused of being pushed through in contravention of environmental laws.
And just last week, a $12.6-million elevated waterfront bike path that was supposed to be a major legacy project failed to withstand a huge wave and collapsed into the sea, killing two people. A third is still missing.
In a city with an antiquated and perpetually gridlocked transportation system, a key component of the Olympic plan was to build a new metro line that would move roughly 300,000 people a day from Copacabana and Ipanema to the Olympic Park, where a number of competition venues are located, in just 13 minutes.
One problem: it’s not finished, and with the government preoccupied with its corruption issues, the most optimistic projection has it being ready barely a month before the Aug. 5 opening ceremony. The pessimistic: it won’t be done on time, and there is no Plan B.
Test events at several venues were postponed, and postponed again, and finally downsized.
The organizers have cut everything from the number of volunteers to television sets in the athletes’ rooms, threatened to make them pay for their own air conditioners and downgraded the quality and quantity of hospitality for visitors and VIPs alike.
Meanwhile, a combination of mosquito-borne viruses, from dengue fever to the latest, Zika, has many a potential visitor’s undies in a knot, though the World Health Organization is trying to reassure visitors that they need not be terrified by visions of shrunken-headed infants. The effect of all the bad news is a depressed market for ticket sales.
Even the locals, who endured years of road closures and construction in the run-up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup and an accelerated version of the same in the two years since, appear to have a case of big event fatigue.
Ticket sales that were counted on to defray a significant portion of the overall budget have lagged far behind targets.
And if all that wasn’t bad enough, McDonald’s has pulled out of the main media centre. But enough of the awful news. On the bright side, Rio is a breathtaking city as long as you’re not actually in it, or trying to get around in it.
In other words, the aerial views will look gorgeous on TV.
Competitively, it may be the best of all recent Games for non-doping athletes, because of the Russian track and field and meldonium scandals, in which state-sponsored doping regimes were exposed. Not to mention the World Anti-Doping Agency rattling its sabres at China, Kenya and, yes, Rio itself, where the Olympic laboratory only became WADA-compliant in March.
The combined effect of these developments may level the playing field, somewhat at least. That’s a long way from saying the days of cheating are over.
Jean-Luc Brassard, the former gold medal-winning freestyle skier who stepped down recently as the Canadian team’s chef de mission for Rio, said he thinks Canada may have its best ever Summer Olympics performance.
“These Olympics will be amazing,” he told Postmedia’s Vicki Hall, “and one of the reasons is because of all these doping scandals that are going on around the world. For one of the first times in decades, our guys will compete at an equal chance with their opponents.” So there’s that, at least. As the IOC has ranged farther and farther from the beaten path in search of hosts willing to pony up the enormous costs of staging the Games, it has finally come to a place that has both surface beauty and hidden calamity, in equal parts.
If it all comes out right on the night, it will be a miracle.