With Summer Olympics a year away, Brazil wonders if it’s ready

Let the countdown begin.

With slightly less than a year to go before the opening of next year’s Summer Olympic Games, preparations are entering their most critical phase. With 10,500 athlete from 205 countries, expected officials are proclaiming that everything is looking wonderful.

Athletes, including rowers and swimmers, have started testing sporting venues, including waters considered highly polluted and possibly unsafe. Reporters from around the globe have arrived. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach met with Brazilian President Dilma Roussef and radiated optimism that the games will be a roaring success, despite previous IOC criticism of the slow pace of preparations.

“Brazilians will show the entire world your unique combination of passion and efficiency,” he said, the latter word almost never associated with this country.

Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes also oozed confidence, telling reporters this week that Olympic Park construction is 82 percent complete and that six of the seven new venues being built will be completed by the end of the year, including the velodrome and the basketball and tennis arenas. The golf course is expected to be ready by November.

Residents of the city are viewing the preparations with less enthusiasm.

“Only the beautiful parts of Rio will benefit,” said Lucimar Caetano, 33, an artist.

That reflected the belief that only the wealthy enclave of Barra, where the Olympic Village will be located, will see new economic development from the games.

That cynicism is born of the experience of the World Cup last year, which also promised an economic boon that didn’t happen.

And Brazil’s economy is in much worse shape than it was when thousands crowded Rio’s famed Copacabana beach in 2009 to cheer raucously at big screen televisions carrying the IOC announcement. Then, Brazil was on the rise.

Today its economy is the dumps. The Brazilian currency closed on Thursday at a 12-year low, compared to the dollar. Rousseff has an approval of just 8 percent, according to the latest Datafolha poll this month.

A major corruption scandal is growing involving state-owned oil company Petrobras, politicians in several political parties, and numerous construction companies, including the international mega firm Odebrecht, whose chief executive, Marcelo Odebrecht, missed this week’s Olympic festivities because he is in jail.

And Brazilians are skeptical about promises that the games will do for Rio what the 1992 ones did for Barcelona, which went from a dirty industrial town to one of the world’s leading cities as a result.

Cariocas, as residents of Rio are called, have heard it before: in 2007, before the Pan American Games and then last year, ahead of the World Cup, which many argue actually hurt small businesses.

Providing security for the World Cup had other downsides. Military police patrolling the streets became aggressive to deter dissatisfied Brazilians from protesting. Many poor Brazilians were forced from their homes to create space for new projects, many of which were never built.

Many of the plush soccer stadiums built for last year’s tournament already are abandoned. In the most cruel irony, the cost of attending soccer games in the new venues has skyrocketed.

Much of this has continued during the Olympics preparation, especially forced evictions of poor residents in the slums.

Paes, the mayor, said this time will be different. He drew a contrast between the IOC and FIFA, the world soccer governing body now undergoing a corruption scandal and which is highly unpopular in Brazil.

“FIFA only wants to know about stadiums, airports, and hotels,” he said. “The IOC, on the contrary, is closely following everything. They are concerned about leaving a legacy.”

If nothing else, planning appears to be better. The stadiums and sporting venues seem like they will be ready well in advance of the games in contrast with the last minute rush that took place prior to the World Cup. And extensive test events at venues will take place, something that was reduced for the soccer tournament.

Some venues like the stadium that will host gymnastics are awaiting only minor modifications early next year, Paes said.

Unknown is what, if anything, will be done about water pollution, especially in the Guanabara Bay, site of the sailing events.

A study commissioned by the Associated Press found dangerously high levels of bacteria and viruses in the bay as well as waters at other venues, a consequence of Rio de Janeiro government’s failure over decades to build a proper sewage system.

After the AP reported the results, the World Health Organization recommended that new tests be done and virus levels be monitored, something the IOC and Brazilian officials had not previously done.

For many, that water pollution and inadequate sewage has not been addressed all these years reflects a huge missed opportunity for Brazil. It has made them further question what kind of legacy the Summer Games will leave.