Rio de Janeiro Olympics facing deep cuts unseen in decades
RIO DE JANEIRO — Cuts, cuts and more cuts.
That’s the situation facing international sports federations, with just over six months to go before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Brazilian organizers will be meeting next month with federation leaders, and World Rowing executive director Matt Smith already knows what to expect: He’s bracing for news that 4,000 temporary grandstand seats at the rowing Olympic venue won’t be built.
At the swimming venue, several thousand seats have already been slashed. And the world governing body for sailing learned more than a year ago that bleachers it wanted had been ruled out.
Television viewers won’t notice when South America’s first Olympics open on Aug. 5, but Rio organizers are scaling down everywhere to eliminate about $500 million to balance the operating budget of 7.4 billion reals ($1.85 billion).
“I’ve been around since Los Angeles in 1984 and we haven’t been in such a situation where a country that is staging the games is in such a vulnerable situation,” Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Brazil was booming when it was awarded the games in 2009. Now it’s buffeted by the worst recession since the 1930s. The currency has plunged almost 50 percent against the dollar, and inflation is over 10 percent and rising. In addition, President Dilma Rousseff is facing impeachment, partly driven by a billion-dollar bribery scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras.
“We haven’t had to face anything like this,” Smith said. “It was a bold move to go to an emerging country. The IOC deciding to go to South America was a really important, strategic issue — but with all the associated risks.”
Hit by cash-flow problems, Rio is reducing the use of unpaid volunteers. Transportation is being rejigged. Few competition results will be available on paper, and Olympic sponsor Panasonic has stepped in to give unprecedented financial help to run the opening and closing ceremonies.
Organizers backed away from plans to have athletes pay for air conditioning in their rooms, but rooms in the Olympic Village won’t have televisions.
The International Olympic Committee is trying to find a positive angle, talking up austerity after the overall $51 billion figure associated with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics scared away many potential bid cities.
“We are looking into each and every budget item,” Christophe Dubi, the Olympic Games Executive Director, told the AP this week in Rio. “I think this is setting a new benchmark. The result is heading in the right direction. They (organizers) have found efficiencies, and I wouldn’t call it cuts.”
Like many, Dubi believes Rio’s natural beauty will make up for everything else.
“No one is saying that the Olympic experience will be affected. On the contrary, Rio will be magic,” Dubi said.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes is almost bragging about the cutbacks as Brazil spends about $10 billion in public and private money to organize the games. Paes is seen as a possible 2018 presidential candidate who hopes to get traction from the Olympics.
“Come on, we are not China, we are not England,” he said this week at the handover of the Olympic basketball arena. “We are not a rich country. So, every time I can cut some of the budget for Olympics — we will do it. This is not going to be the Olympics of wasting money.”
Alan Tomlinson, who studies the Olympics at the University of Brighton in England, said the IOC was altering the script “to make pragmatism sound like idealism.”
“That kind of message is for the global public,” Tomlinson said in an email. “The promised benefits to the local communities — and the public of the host city and nation — are beyond the reach of the IOC.”
Cuts aside, Rio is facing other problems:
— Ticket sales are lagging. Only about half of the 4.5 million domestic tickets have been sold. Rio organizers say Brazilians do everything at the last minute.
— Guanabara Bay and the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon — venues for sailing, rowing and canoeing — show astronomically high virus levels, documented in an on-going study by AP. Organizers can’t fix the contamination and are implementing only stop-gap measures, which will leave the health of more than 1,000 athletes at risk.
— Rio will use about 85,000 soldiers and policeman for the games, the largest contingent in Brazilian history. The number is about twice what London used in 2012. Some of the effort will be aimed at keeping gangs from hillside favelas from reaching Olympic venues.
— Researchers have found evidence of the dengue-like Zika virus in Brazil and have linked it to a surge of birth defects in the country. Zika is most prevalent in Brazil’s northeast but has spread south to Rio. The mosquito-borne diseases are worst in the southern hemisphere’s summer months of December, January and February and less troublesome in the drier winter month of August when the Olympics will be held.
— A 16-kilometer (10-mile) subway extension to take riders from central Rio to the Olympic Park in the western suburb of Barra da Tijuca is likely to be finished just a few weeks before the games open. The untested line is a risk.
“The governor (Luiz Fernando Pezao) himself is going every week to the construction site to ensure that it will be delivered on time,” Dubi said.
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