Rio Olympics: Faster, higher, stronger? How about tardier, broker, sicker?
The Summer Olympic Games are scheduled to start in Rio de Janeiro in a matter of weeks on Aug. 5, and by all accounts, Brazil has an Olympic-size mess on its hands.
The country has been hit hard by Zika, a mosquito-borne virus linked to neurological diseases such as Guillain-Barré syndrome and birth defects such as microcephaly, an abnormal smallness of the brain. Because of Zika, some top-name athletes, such as seven of the world’s top golfers (including No 1-ranked Jason Day), have chosen to skip the Olympics. Other athletes are staying home, claiming “scheduling” or “injury” conflicts, but the reasons may be more Zika-related. Here’s a partial list of other top athletes who will be no-shows in Rio. Some male athletes say they will attend but are considering freezing sperm ahead of time. Some countries are issuing athletes official full-coverage uniforms treated with mosquito repellent.
Zika’s not the only health concern. The raw sewage that flows into Rio’s Guanabara Bay, where open-water swimmers, sailors, and windsurfers are scheduled to compete, is rife with superbacteria. The drug-resistant bacteria can cause skin, urinary, gastrointestinal, and pulmonary infections. These bacteria, usually found in hospital waste, produce an enzyme, KPC, which is resistant to antibiotics.
Brazil’s economy was riding high when the country was awarded the games in 2009—remember when the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russian, India, and China) were the envy of the world? Now, “Brazil is mired in its worst recession since the 1930s,” according to a USA Today story. “Unemployment has reached 10 percent, as has the yearly rate of inflation.”
What else could go wrong? Plenty. The sign at the Rio airport that says “Welcome to Hell” isn’t kidding.
Let’s not forget the political scandals. Petrobras, the state-run oil company, is embroiled in a corruption probe involving charges of lining investors’ pockets, a scandal that reaches all the way to the top levels of government. The country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, faces an impeachment trial (on issues other than the Petrobras scandal, for allegedly manipulating the federal budget to hide a deficit). While she is suspended from office pending the trial, her replacement, Michel Temer, has his own corruption troubles—he is implicated in the Petrobras scandal.
Organizers claim to have sold 67 percent of tickets, but most remain skeptical of that number. Work on the city’s transportation system, which is adding an extension to its Metro line to carry people to the games’ different venues, is not scheduled to be finished until four days before the games start.
The World Anti-Doping Agency has suspended the credentials of a testing facility in Rio that was supposed to handle doping claims, saying the laboratory “didn’t conform with international standards.” Doping is of particular concern after the entire Russian track and field team was banned from competing in the Olympics over doping allegations.
Apparently, there also are under-the-radar threats from ISIS, although it’s impossible to say how serious those are. Brazil’s national intelligence agency reported that an ISIS official had tweeted, “Brazil, you are our next target.” But whether the threats are from terrorists or ordinary criminals, police in Rio are warning that they might not able to protect tourists. And Brazil is experiencing an epidemic of anti-LGBT violence.
The state government of Rio de Janeiro has declared “a state of public calamity” because of the city’s financial crisis. The cash crisis could cause a “total collapse in public security, health, education, mobility, and environmental management,” the government warned. While the state waits for a federal cash injection, at least one hospital has closed its doors. Police have not been paid in months for overtime work. The acting governor, Francisco Dornelles, admitted that the games could be “a big failure.”
Human body parts washed up on the beach near where the beach volleyball games will by played. According to officials, the original owner of a dismembered foot and other unnamed parts has not been identified.
To top it all off, the Olympic mascot got killed. Actually, the official mascot is a cute cartoon yellow jaguar (really a blending of different animals) named Vinicius after a Brazilian musician. Yet at an Olympic torch relay ceremony, which featured a real chained jaguar next to the Olympic flame, the animal bolted as it was being returned to its cage and charged a soldier, who shot and killed it in self-defense. Talk about a bad omen.
A USA Today story lists “5 signs Rio’s not ready for the Games,” including the fact that a section of a bike path built as a legacy project for the Olympic Games collapsed in April, killing two people.
Many media outlets have declared that these myriad woes constitute a “perfect storm” for Rio. You’re tempted to say Blame it on Rio, but even given how bad that movie was, it doesn’t encompass all of the Rio Olympics’ problems.
Rio isn’t alone in hoping for an Olympic bonanza that often doesn’t come true. Olympic host cities and countries usually lose money. The Montreal Olympics of 1976 didn’t pay off its $2 billion debt until 2006. “The only Olympics in modern times that officially didn’t lose money were the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles,” according to a story in Outside magazine.
Every Olympics, from 1960 through 2012—and that doesn’t even count the massive Sochi boondoggle of 2014—has run over budget. And not by just a little. … As then Utah Senator Bob Bennett said at the time of the  Salt Lake Games, without U.S. taxpayer money, “no American city will ever host the Olympic Games again, because no American city can ever afford the kinds of things that are required.”
Maybe the Olympics have just gotten too big and too expensive. Maybe it’s not realistic to hold them anymore. Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune wrote a column pleading, “Let Rio Olympics be the last.”
Host countries such as Brazil may find themselves diverting resources to make a statement to the global community, that can — though not always — come at the expense of real needs and their vulnerable citizens. This happens reliably enough some have fairly argued the IOC encouraging cities to compete to be host is in itself an irresponsible act.
Cash-strapped Chicago can be grateful its 2016 Olympics bid failed, Rio’s victory sparing this city the indignity of going further into hock trying to deliver on its own grandiose promises.
“There must be a better way to determine who appears on a box of cornflakes,” Rosenthal wrote.
The doom-and-gloom prognosticators could have it all wrong. Rio might pull off the extravaganza and offer thrilling athletic competitions, even if it takes a miracle of Olympian proportions. The Olympic Games still draw a huge TV audience worldwide—4.7 billion people watched the opening ceremony in Beijing in 2008, and 3.64 billion tuned in to the 2012 Olympics in London.
Here’s another bright spot about the Olympics: For the first time, the games will feature a refugee team of athletes without a country. The 10 athletes are originally from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo and will march into the opening ceremony just ahead of the Brazilian team under the banner of the Olympic flag.
Olympics highlights, such as the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” victory of the U.S. hockey team over the Russians, have become part of the national U.S. lore. Olympic records, such as Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s first-ever perfect 10 in 1976 in Montreal, British ice dancers Torvill and Dean’s perfect score in 1984 in Sarajevo, and American Michael Phelps’ record eight gold medals in 2008 in Beijing are the stuff of legend.
Besides, the Olympics will go on because there are huge money stakes involved. NBC Universal paid $1.23 billion for U.S. broadcast rights to the 2016 games, and $7.75 billion for Olympic broadcast right—Summer and Winter Games—through 2032. Even though the monetary scandals of the International Olympic Committee have never reached FIFA proportions, they’re bad enough on their own. In the latest example, a May 2016 report in the Guardian alleged of irregularities and charges of bribery tied to people backing Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics.
So “perfect storm” or no, the games are going to Rio. Back in 2009, the city of Chicago was one of four finalists for the 2016 Olympics. Many Chicagoans were excited at the prospect. Its rivals were Rio; Madrid, Spain; and Tokyo, Japan.
Personally, I always believed that the enormous hassle of hosting an Olympics, which would mean unmanageable crowds, an overstuffed transit system, and jacked-up prices, would outweigh any benefits of construction jobs and civic pride. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley seemed to think the 2016 Olympics would jump-start Chicago’s economy, which was reeling from the Great Recession just like the rest of America.
Once the IOC started voting on which site to choose, though, most people (including yours truly) got swept up in Olympic fever. The Chicago contingent, led by the mayor, made its presentation. Even President Obama and Michelle Obama flew to Copenhagen, Denmark, to add to the pitch, and were said to be the most persuasive of the bunch.
in the end, it didn’t matter. Chicago was the first city dropped, drawing chortles from blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who screeched on radio and TV that the failed bid showed how ineffectual Obama was on the world stage. A gathering of conservatives at an Americans For Prosperity meeting erupted in applause when the loss was announced. Other Republicans were quick to join the derision, according to a CNN story at the time.
“Other than people who like to cheer, ‘We’re No. 4! We’re No. 4!’ I don’t know how this is anything but really embarrassing,” Republican strategist Rich Galen said, adding that Obama’s failed pitch will probably be the joke on Capitol Hill for weeks to come.
So the Games went to Rio, which made sense. No country in South America had ever hosted an Olympic Games, and it seemed fair for the Southern Hemisphere to have its turn. Brazil was basking in a good economy at the time because of high oil prices and went on to host a successful FIFA World Cup in 2014.
Of course, that was then. This is now.
Boy, did Chicago dodge a major bullet. Who’s the joke on now?
Originally posted on Daily Kos on July 10, 2016.