Brazil has long been known as a country that can throw a great party.
With 77 days to go before the Olympic Games begin in Rio de Janeiro, the nation famous for doing things at the last minute faces a novel situation. The venues are ready, but the host does not appear to be.
With the country’s president fighting impeachment and the economy on track for its worst recession in more than a century, Brazilians are both angry and distracted.
When Rio de Janeiro won the right to host the Games in 2009, Brazil was the darling of the developing world. Its economy had grown briskly for most of the decade, 30 million people had been lifted from poverty and the nation was assuming a prominent role in world affairs.
Since then, a collapse in commodities prices has dragged down the economy, and the political problems faced by President Dilma Rousseff have raised more than just a few questions.
President Rousseff is currently facing impeachment proceedings, which have already been voted through by the national congress, throwing the country into yet greater political crisis. After a crushing defeat in which 367 of the 513 congress members voted in favour of removing her, the motion was passed to the senate, which is likely to hold a vote within weeks.
If a trial is opened, Rousseff will step aside for 180 days over charges she manipulated public accounts. And if Rousseff, who was famously booed during the 2014 World Cup, is suspended when the Games begin on August 5, her vice-president Michel Temer will act as interim president.
The twin meltdowns in politics and the economy have consumed Brazil, and the Olympics have all but disappeared from the front pages and TV news. In a nation where soccer has long been the sport that matters, politics is the only game in town.
The venues are complete except for the velodrome, which will not be ready in time for an official test event, and the athletics stadium, where the running track is being laid. Officials say both will be finished well before the Games begin on Aug. 5.
Some 36 test events have taken place, including the hockey test event where the Barbados national women’s hockey team grabbed the first international gold medal for their sport. But the deep recession has prompted last-minute cutbacks. Organizers withdrew plans for temporary seating at some venues, reduced the number of volunteers and briefly considered scrapping plans to provide athletes’ rooms with air-conditioning.
The International Olympic Committee visited the city this month and expressed satisfaction with progress so far, albeit with the caveat that “thousands” of small details had to be finalized.
In the middle of all of this Rio represents the final realistic chance of Olympic glory for the likes of Bolt, Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill, and Sir Bradley Wiggins, all of whom will be desperate to sign off with gold. It is becoming a cliché for Bolt to head into a major championship with doubts over his form or fitness but he makes a mockery of them every time. He is determined to complete what he calls the “three-peat” of becoming the first person to win the 100 metres, 200m and 4x100m relay at three successive Olympics, something he believes would cement his legacy.
And finally the other big issues concern Rio itself.
A planned cleanup of the bay where the sailing and open water swimming events will take place did not happen. Although officials say the race lanes will be pristine, the Olympics will not produce the promised legacy of clear waters.
An outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in hundreds of children in northern Brazil, has caused widespread panic and prompted some fans and even some athletes to consider skipping the Games. More than 1,100 cases of microcephaly have been linked to congenital infection in Brazil, out of a total reported 7,015 cases.
The local organizing committee (LOC) said it did not expect Zika to impact the Games, “It’s getting close to winter in Rio so it’s the dry season and mosquitoes find it hard to survive.”
Another very troubling statistic. in the first three months of this year, 432 people were murdered in the city, according to government statistics. Added to which the deaths of two people on a new seafront cycle lane that was touted as part of the Olympics legacy have shaken residents. The lane collapsed when a strong wave swept up the sea wall.
The biggest infrastructure concern remains the extension of the metro to Barra da Tijuca, the neighbourhood hosting the Olympic Park and athletes’ village. The state government project has suffered repeated delays and funding issues, despite IOC officials warning that the transport link was essential for the Games.
Such stories may be partly responsible for slow demand for tickets, with only 62 percent sold so far, according to Phil Wilkinson, spokesman for Rio 2016 organizing committee. And with only 22 per cent of Paralympic tickets for Rio sold organizers are waiting to see if the draw for the football tournament, by far the biggest attraction in Brazil, might have a positive impact on the numbers.
Ticket prices range from roughly $11 to $1,300 depending on the sport, the session and the quality of your seat. Easily the most satisfying result for Brazilians come August would be gold in men’s football. This is the only major title the five-time world champion has yet to win, finishing second three times — including at London 2012.
Surprisingly Visa Inc said that it expects 400,000 to 500,000 international travellers to visit Rio for the games, less than the 590,000 tourists who attended the last summer Olympics in London in 2012.
In true Brazilian style, though, officials say they expect the Games to turn out fine.
But the irony of it all is that the credibility of the entire event could be at stake with the Russian doping scandal athletes will be mistrusted more than ever, despite the current scrutiny of them arguably making them less likely to cheat. Indeed, the recent focus on drugs in sport could make the Rio Olympics the cleanest ever. But that does not mean it will be drug-free.
If Olympic opening ceremonies should capture the atmosphere in a host nation, then Rio 2016’s curtain-raiser should certainly be interesting.