The World Cup is well underway and Brazil is worried. Not by the possibility that the unfinished stadiums might collapse, or that protesters might storm them or train drivers might refuse to take fans to them. No -- it’s the performance of the national soccer team that has the country on edge. With a win and a tie so far, the performance of the team has been way below what Brazilians expect.
What no one is even remotely concerned about now is a far bigger crisis looming in Brazil’s future: In just over two-years’ time, Brazil will host the world’s other great sporting festival, the Olympic Games.
The country is not even remotely ready.
The International Olympic Committee is worried; its vice president, John Coates, called Brazil’s preparations “the worst ever.” The committee has taken the unprecedented step of sending experts to the host city Rio de Janeiro to help. “Rio," Coates said, “is behind in many, many ways.”
In a rare show of open criticism against an Olympic host city, 18 international sports federations publicly aired concerns that Rio’s venues won’t be ready. In a typical show of defiance, Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes accused the federations of making too many “unnecessary demands.”
So, does Rio not get it?
The evidence on the ground suggests it doesn’t.
The Olympic venues are way behind schedule; work on some hasn’t even begun.
At the main Olympic site, construction has been delayed. Strikes by construction workers has slowed work and, seen from the air, the lack of progress is glaring. One large steel structure, the Broadcasting Center, is visible. The rest of the site is a sea of mud.
Nearby, what should be the golf course is simply a large brown field. No grass is visible, no progress evident for the return of a sport that’s been missing from the Olympics for a century. At this rate, it will be missing again -- new courses are notoriously difficult to bed in.
But it’s the second biggest site that is causing most alarm.
We drove around the Deodoro district on the edge of Rio for an hour, asking residents where the Olympic site was. Nobody knew. And no wonder. There is not a single sign that the world’s greatest multi-sports festival will start here in 2016. No construction. No Olympic rings. Nothing.
We eventually found a polo field and a clue. On a map provided by Olympic organizers, it did appear that this is where pentathlon and equestrian events will take place.
But the area currently looks like a riding stable in a small town. Eight Olympic sports, including shooting, hockey, and fencing are due to be held at Deodoro. But the federal government has handed responsibility for construction to the state, which handed it to the city.
And then there’s the mess of Rio’s Olympic Bay.
“It’s best described as a sea of sewage,” said Leona Deckelbaum, as we hold our noses on a boat in Guanabara Bay. She is an environmental campaigner who lives by the bay she loves and smells every day. “So much of the waste of Rio pours into the bay every day untreated,” she said. “Thousands of gallons an hour. And nothing the city has done has helped clean this place up. It’s not just disgusting, it’s frightening.”
On environmental grounds alone you might think Rio’s authorities might care enough to solve this issue. But in two-years’ time, Olympic sailors and windsurfers are meant to compete for medals here. As we sail around a picturesque bay, we come across sewage, oil and vast amounts of plastic and trash. One Brazilian Olympic sailor, Lars Grael, has come across human corpses on four occasions. His brother, Torben, an Olympic gold medalist, said boats are now so aerodynamic that one large plastic bag can slow a sailor dramatically.
“The amount of garbage we have is a very big problem,” he said. “We cannot have an Olympic medal decided by who gets less garbage."
In one area of Rio, construction is impressive. The Olympic village where athletes will stay is well underway, but it is being built with private money. Politicians and bureaucrats have nothing to do with the site. Everywhere else, federal, state and city officials are making little progress; one Olympic official said dealing with them is “hell.”
Concerns and costs are rising. In April, the estimated cost of the Games rose again, from $12 billion to $15.5 billion. You can expect them to rise again, faster than the stadiums that are meant to host the events. Rio had to demolish the cycling venue it hoped would be good enough for the Games because it failed to meet Olympic standards. The new one will cost 10 times more.
Brazil seemed to recently show a sign that it might, finally, be getting the message. Aldo Rebelo, the country’s sports minister, said Brazil has been too slow getting ready for Rio 2016 and should have been better prepared for the World Cup. Brazil's defiance might be a slap in the face of mounting evidence and anger. Rio’s mayor, who assured me in February that he could “100 percent guarantee” the city will be ready for the Games, now says he’s “pretty sure” they’ll deliver them on time.
Brazil is the first South American country to be chosen to stage the Games. It believed that its time had come as a big and important country when it was chosen as a host. Time is now running out for Brazil to prove it deserves the responsibility it has been handed. The International Olympic Committee told Rio at the start of the year it didn’t have a day to lose. Rio has lost plenty of days since then. The clock is ticking.
First published June 18 2014, 4:20 PM