“[A] total collapse in public security, health, education, transport and environmental management” awaits competitors – Rio’s acting governor Francisco Dornelles has declared.
Less than 18 days remain until the spectacle of 2016’s Brazilian Olympics is set to begin, however behind the scenes officials are scrambling to contain disaster on almost every front.
Alexandro Kasabien – Latin America Correspondent
The eight years since the IOC’s decision to name Brazil as host have been fraught with monumental changes to the country, most of them backwards.
The vibrant economic darling that successfully won the Olympic bid is now a distant memory. The country now finds itself in the midst of its most severe economic crisis in decades with unemployment at record levels and crime at “crisis” levels.
A political corruption scandal has led to the impeachment of the country’s President, Dilma Rousseff, as well as the sacking of dozens of members of government, fuelling deep resentments of the country’s political and economic elite. In the meantime, the local government in Rio has declared a “financial emergency”, is effectively bankrupt, and is unable to pay for essential health and security resources needed for the games.
Construction delays are rampant and their quality questionable as budget cuts continue. Protests and anger remain as the poor are forcefully evicted from slums to make room for accommodation and facilities. For open water sports in particular, little will be done to clear up pollution at the game sites that are estimated to be 1.7 million times “hazardous” levels.
All whilst the country suffers a public health crisis in the form of the Zika virus that has infected more than 4000 in the last 12 months alone.
Brazil’s Olympic committee is grappling with the challenges of operating with a budget that has been slashed by $680 million as the country struggles with recession. Domestic audiences, the poor in particular, lament at the mind-boggling cost of $34 billion used to fund construction and the game’s operations even as unemployment hit’s record highs of 11.4%.
The optimism and energy that had filled Brazil following its announcement that it would hold the Olympics has largely evaporated. Barely half of the total Olympic tickets have been sold, whilst an embarrassing 12% of tickets are all that have been bought for the Paralympic events.
Following findings of entrenched corruption within Petrobras, the President was impeached following mass demonstrations. The energy company was the biggest in Latin America as well as the biggest employer in Brazil, however with the collapse in the value of oil, the company has laid off 61% of its employees over the past two years. The political turmoil has hamstrung the already sluggish economy, one that was hard hit by the slump in commodity prices and fall in demand from China in particular.
The state government has had to declare for bankruptcy due to plummeting revenues. For organisers, this would at least allow for emergency funds to be allocated to Rio without the approval of state legislature. The money is sorely needed; state budgets have been slashed to health and security which are already overwhelmed and ill prepared for an estimated tourist influx of more than half a million.
Crime rates remain of particular concern. Since the cuts to public security, the federal government’s controversial program of Favela “pacification” has been hit the hardest. There has been a resurgence of violent crime, a key fear for tourists, and now there are warnings that terrorists could target the games to capitalise on lax security. In a last-minute dash to reassure visitors, the federal government has authorised an emergency loan to allow the deployment of 20,000 military and security personnel across the city during the event.
Due to the cuts to funding, competitors in the sailing and rowing events are highly concerned about the levels of pollution in Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and Guanabara Bay. Research on the ground has found that levels as high as 1.7 million times and the hazardous level of raw sewage present in the water presents a severe health risk.
Along the beaches, large pieces of debris and rubbish still remain less than three weeks out. More recently, bodies have been found washed up on beach venues set to hold the beach volley ball event.
State officials have said that cleaning up the water venues will now be impossible due to lack of funds, meaning sailors will have to dodge plastic bags and human excrement as well as other waste.
Budget cuts have led to amenities being cut back even for international competitors. Within the Olympic village, rooms furnishings will be basic with no T.V. There are also concerns surrounding the quality of construction after a cliff-side bike track collapsed over the weekend killing three and injuring two. The rush to complete costly projects in time are leading many to wonder if essentials corners have been cut in order to save money and what risks remain for visitors and competitors.
“The mosquito has been here in Brazil for three decades, and we are badly losing the battle against the mosquito” – Brazil’s Health Minister Marcelo Castro warned.
The Zika Virus continues to cause misery and grief across the country. Already, a number of headline athletes have withdrawn from their events due to concerns that they may endanger their own offspring should they attend. Pregnant women have been warned to stay away over fears that the mosquito-borne virus could affect their unborn children, leaving them paralysed and with shrunken heads.
More than 4000 cases of microcephaly, the disease linked to the virus have now been reported over the past 12 months. This compares to 150 cases in the country over the entirety of 2014.
In a last-ditch efforts to curb the spread of the disease, 220,000 soldiers have been drafted to battle the plague by spraying ponds and swamps in the area. Officials are hoping that since the Olympics is being held during the dry season, mosquito numbers will be low.
As the games approach, the world’s eyes will be on Brazil. Questions surrounding player safety and support will shine an ugly light on questions the country has long suppressed, but ultimately, changes can only be good for a country in dire need of help.
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