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Political scandals, shoddy construction and toxic waters: Can Rio pull off a successful Olympics?

Christian Petersen / Getty images North America / AFP | General view of the Olympic rings ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games on July 31, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Rio’s readiness for the Olympics is in question after recent setbacks – including a construction collapse and a fire at the Athletes Village – only days before the games are set to begin.

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The main access ramp at Marina da Gloria, which is set to host the Olympic sailing events, collapsed on Saturday in what was the latest mishap to befall the Olympic city of Rio de Janeiro. Coming only days before the first-ever games on the South American continent are scheduled to get under way on August 5, many are understandably worried.

At the Athletes Village on Friday night a fire ripped through the Australian quarters during which a number of items belonging to the team were also stolen.

Australian officials said they subsequently learned that the alarms had been deactivated. Only last week Australian team chief Kitty Chiller condemned the accommodation as “not safe or ready” citing blocked toilets, leaking pipes, exposed wiring, stairwells without lighting and an overall lack of cleanliness.

Shoddy construction and incomplete infrastructure have put Rio in the firing line for months, threatening to derail the Games. Two people were killed in April when a new elevated bike path collapsed.

On the back foot

As organisers frantically rush to get ready in time others are philosophical about the problems, citing them as inevitabilities in the run-up to an international event.

“There are always problems,” said Mike Wells, spokesperson for Games Monitor, a London-based group established to raise awareness of issues during the London Olympics.

“The idea of rebuilding this infrastructure every four years in a different city is absurd.”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach on Sunday defended the city’s preparedness saying Rio would deliver a successful Olympic Games.

It’s a view unlikely to be shared by everyone, however, least of all some of his colleagues. IOC Vice President John Coates said the scale of Rio’s problems exceeded even those of the Greek capital back in 2004.

“The worst I’ve experienced,” he said in a statement back in April, adding: "Worse than Athens."

While Coates soon backtracked on his comments, he was nonetheless prompted to form a special taskforce – a first for the IOC – in an attempt to help Rio raise its game.

Some IOC insiders are said to have even gone so far as to suggest swapping the 2020 Tokyo Games with Rio 2016.

Political scandals

Despite all the dire warnings, Rio is not the first host city to find itself under the gun.

Sochi 2014 became the most expensive Olympics in history and was dogged in the run up by corruption claims, protests over Russia’s human rights record and unfinished hotel rooms.

Even London, which completed preparations ahead of schedule in 2012, was the victim of unforeseen circumstances, with riots and torrential rain putting pressure on organisers.

But it was Athens in 2004 that set the record for the most ill-prepared of host cities with venues left incomplete on the eve of the Games, doping scandals and the lack of a legacy plan.

Beyond the challenges posed by the Olympics, Rio has been plagued by political and economic turmoil – the worst seen in the country for decades.

Mass demonstrations broke out after former president Dilma Roussef was unceremoniously unseated on allegations of corruption. She faces an impeachment trial in August, and although she was removed months ago the nation remains divided between her supporters and those of interim president and rival Michel Temer.

Even before her removal the country was rocked by a scandal at state oil giant Petrobras that implicated several officials and executives – Rousseff included – in a kickback scheme that ultimately destabilised the government.

Toxic water and Zika

Revelations that the city’s waterways are heavily polluted with raw human sewage and teeming with dangerous viruses and bacteria has raised alarm over the conditions for athletes competing in Olympic water sports.

The first results of a 16-month-long test commissioned by the Associated Press and carried out on the aquatic Olympic and Paralympic venues revealed viral levels at up to 1.7 million times what would be considered problematic in the United States or Europe. Health experts have warned that ingesting just three teaspoons of water contaminated at these levels could put swimmers and athletes at risk of stomach and respiratory illnesses.

The most contaminated points are the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where Olympic rowing will take place, and the Gloria Marina, the starting point for the sailing races.

A new sampling at the lagoon in June revealed 248 million adenoviruses per litre; by comparison, readings in just the thousands per litre have caused concern in the past in California. Adenoviruses can infect membranes including those of the respiratory tract, eyes, intestines and nervous system.

Decades of promises to clean up the pollution has failed to resolve the situation.

While local authorities including Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes have acknowledged the failure of the city's water cleanup efforts, calling it a "lost chance" and a "shame", Olympic officials continue to insist that Rio's waterways will be safe for athletes and visitors.

Wells recalls London’s own pre-Olympics scramble to rid the city of dangerous pollutants, burying roughly 7,000 tonnes of radioactive waste just 250 metres from the main stadium.

“They broke every rule in the book to do this,” Wells said. “I’m not saying there was risk to the participants at the Games but they did expose site workers to the risk of risk, and even local residents.”

Although cases of Zika have dipped significantly since a severe outbreak of the virus earlier this year, and local health officials say the virus is under control, it continues to cast a shadow ahead of the Games. Some experts are concerned that visitors returning from Brazil could potentially carry the virus back to non-infected regions.

Top athletes including golfers Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic and tennis players Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova have said they will not attend the Games over Zika fears.

But as the country looks forward to hosting the biggest games in the world it may still prove too difficult to put the litany of delays, scandals and health scares behind them.

“There’s plenty of literature that shows the Olympics bring no benefit to a host city," Wells said. “I would describe the Olympics in some ways as like a parasite – it doesn’t kill its host, but it causes some damage.”
 

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