Rio Golf Course a year later
July 27, 2017 Guanabara bay. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Eight months before the start of the Rio Olympics, I wrote a post entitled: “Brazil’s Olympian Challenge: Everything.”

Unemployment in Brazil was 10%. Inflation was 10%. Brazil’s credit rating was junk status. The currency had devalued by a third at that point in December 2015.

Guanabara Bay, where the boat competitions would take place, was getting horrific PR due to pictures displaying the filthiest waters you’d never want to wade through.

The president of Brazil, Dilma Rouseff, was in the process of being deposed for corruption, as news of the biggest corruption investigation in Brazilian history was splashed across the news headlines on a daily basis.

And I wrote all that even before the Zika Virus became a thing.

A year later, not all that much has improved in Rio de Janeiro.

As this good AP summary of Rio a year later states, you could say there was some good to come out of the Rio Olympics.

The Olympics left behind a new subway line extension, high-speed bus service and an urban jewel: a renovated port area filled with food stands, musicians and safe street life in a city rife with crime. These probably would not have been built without the prestige of the Olympics. But the games also imposed deadlines and drove up the price. A state auditor’s report said the $3-billion subway was overbilled by 25 per cent.

Guanabara Bay a year later
July 27, 2017 Guanabara bay. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

But generally, the bad according to that article outweighed the good.

  • The Olympics left a half-dozen vacant sports arenas in the Olympic Park and 3,600 empty apartments in the boarded-up Olympic Village. Deodoro, a major complex of venues in the impoverished north, is shuttered behind iron gates.
  • A $20-million golf course is struggling to find players and financing. A few dozen were on the course on a recent, sunny Saturday. The clubhouse is mostly unfurnished, and it costs non-Brazilians 560 reals ($180) for 18 holes and a cart.
  • Since the Olympics, the bankrupt state of Rio de Janeiro has ceased major efforts to clean the bay, its unwelcome stench often drifting along the highway from the international airport. “I think it’s gotten worse,” Brazil’s gold-medal sailor Kahena Kunze said in a recent interview. “There was always floating trash, but I see more and more. It’s no use hiding the trash because it comes back. I figured it would get worse because I haven’t seen anything concrete being done.”
  • Some of the politicians behind the Olympics have been accused of graft, and organizers still owe creditors about $30 million to 40 million. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who wept when Rio was awarded the games, was convicted last month on corruption charges and faces a 9 1/2-year prison term. He is appealing. Former Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes , the local moving force behind the Olympics, is being investigated for allegedly accepting at least 15 million reals ($5 million) in payments to facilitate construction projects tied to the games. He denies wrongdoing.

The Rio Olympic organizers are still struggling under the weight of an approximate USD40 million debt. When the organizers appealed to the IOC for relief, the IOC replied no, saying “it had already contributed a record $1.53 billion to the Rio Olympics.

Fortunately, the Brazilian government was able to find more sympathetic ears in the British government. It was announced on August 1, 2017 that the British government would donate GBP80 million (over USD100 million) to Brazil, the ninth largest economy, to help “reduce poverty and fund economic development.”

Of course, it’s not all bad news.

At least Ryan Lochte, the American swimmer who lied about being robbed at gunpoint at a Rio gas station, was actually cleared last month of charges that he falsely communicated a crime to authorities.

Yay!

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feral cat in rio
A napping stray cat on the Escadaria Selarón staircase

On September 12, 1964, a month prior to the opening of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Mainichi Daily News published the last of a 15-part UPI series entitled, “Great Cities of the World”. The article was entitled “Rio: The City of Marching For Tomorrow”, a meaningless title really. The theme was a familiar one for emerging markets at the time: a fascinating city in a far-off land that was growing rapidly into prominence.

Below are a few of the highlights from that article about the city of Rio de Janeiro that provide us with hints to what has changed, and what has not over the past 52 years.

The Same

  • Corruption: “Rio is still Brazil’s center of political intrigue and corruption.” The article goes on to state that the laws are made in the recently established government seat, Brasilia, but that “the deals are made in elegant Copacabana Beach apartments owned by leading politicians, or by their mistresses, distant relatives or front men.” For sure, this is still true.
  • Industry: “Rio, outside the big coffee-and-automobile complex of Sao Paulo, has managed to win a positions in the textile, food processing and electronics industries.” Coffee and cars are still big exports for Brazil, as are textiles, electronics, aircraft, iron ore and orange juice.
  • Umbanda: “Umbanda claims 30,000 followers in Rio, but the signs would indicate more.” This uniquely Brazilian religion, a fusion of Roman Catholicism, African traditions, and indigenous American beliefs, is still a viable religion, with estimates of 400,000 followers in Brazil, with many of them likely in Rio.
  • Feral Cats: “No reformer has yet suggested doing away with Rio’s half-wild stray cats, numbering countless thousands, which dominate every park, alley and quiet street and no one is likely to attack them. A lot of Cariocas believe cats have ‘the souls of people.'” Rio, apparently, is still a cat haven.

 

Not the Same

  • Population: The population in 1964 was 3million. Today, Rio is creaking with a population over 11 million.
  • Maracana Stadium: Rio still goes crazy for soccer and plays big games in the Maracana Stadium. However, back in 1964, the stadium held an astounding 230,000 people. After the stadium was renovated and re-opened in 2013, it now seats 78,000.
  • Guanabara Bay: “The sparkling blue beauty of Guanabara Bay…”: That certainly isn’t a phrase bandied about these days.

 

guanabara bay pollution
Guanabara Bay

Always

Fun in the Face of Solemnity and Challenge: As was true in 1964, it is still true today: the symbol of devout Catholic belief, Christ the Redeemer, is seen as a symbol of faith and peace, and at the same time, an expression of sweet cynicism. As the article stated, “‘He’s not giving His blessings,’ Cariocas like to wisecrack. ‘He is shrugging His shoulders.'”

christ the redeemer

open water swimming fort copacabana

In the first four Olympiads, from 1896 to 1904, swimming events were held in open water areas like The Mediterranean, The Seine River or artificial lakes. As mentioned in a previous post, the 1908 Olympics in London were held at the massive White City Stadium that had a pool and diving area built into the infield. For the most part in recent history, swimming events have been held in pools, and recently indoor pools.

At the 2000 Olympics, the triathlon was introduced, which includes a 1,500 meter swim in open water. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, athletes could compete for the first time in a 10,000 kilometer swim. In Beijing, this 10,000 meter swim took place in a rowing-canoeing park, while the same race took place in The Serpentine, which is a recreational lake in Hyde Park, London.

For the 2016 Rio Olympics, both the triathlon and the 10,000 meter swim competition will commence at Fort Copacabana, which is at the southern edge of Rio de Janeiro. This is truly open water as Fort Copacabana opens up into the South Atlantic Ocean.

There has been a lot of news about the filthy and possibly dangerous conditions in the Guanabara Bay waters, where the sailing events will take place, but Fort Copacabana is about 30 kilometers away from the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, and there is less anxiety about sickness and safety for he triathlon and 10,000 meter race. This is how the site openwatersswimming.com puts it.

Fort Copacabana to Guanabara Bay

As can be expected in a beach bordering a major metropolitan area, Copacabana Beach is not pristine and there is plenty of urban runoff in the water, especially after a rain. But it still remains one of the world’s most iconic beaches and presents one of the world’s greatest natural amphitheaters for open water swimming competitions. With a twice daily inflow and outflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean, major events like the Rei e Rainha do Mar and Travessia dos Fortes are hugely successful.

To me, what is more amazing about the 10,000 meter open water swim is how close the finishes are. Unlike a 10k run, which is completed in 26 to 28 minutes at high performance levels, a 10k open water swim will take about 1 hour and 50 minutes to 2 hours, which is a little less time than a fast-paced foot marathon of 42 kilometers. While 10,000 meter race finishes are determined by seconds, marathon top finishers are often ten to thirty seconds apart.

Maarten van der Weijden
Maarten van der Weijden, winner of the first Olympic 10,000 meter open water swim competition in 2008.

In the short history of Olympic open water racing, after nearly two hours of grueling swimming, the differences between the top finishing times have been seconds, even fractions of seconds. At the first 10,000 race in Beijing, only two seconds separated the medalists, 1.5 seconds being the difference between gold and silver. At the London Games four years later, only 3.4 seconds separated first from second.

All this after nearly two hours in the water!

Torben Grael
Torben Grael (right), Brazil’s most decorated Olympian, is frustrated over the lost opportunity to clean up Guanabara Bay.

The Rio Olympics are under attack.

Not only is the world concerned about the removal of Brazil’s sitting President, the Petrobras scandal, the state of its weakened economy, and the threat of the deadly zika virus, prominent Brazilian athletes are also expressing increasingly powerful criticism and concern.

In this past week, Brazil’s most decorated Olympian, Torben Grael, as well as popular and former professional footballer, Rivaldo, spoke out very critically regarding the environment and security respectively.

In regards to the terribly polluted state of Guanabara Bay, Grael said in a recent interview that the organizers missed a huge chance to clean up the waters where sailing events will be held. Said the five-time medalist over five Olympiads:

We always hoped that having a big event like the Games would help. We ourselves put a lot of pressure to make it happen, but unfortunately it didn’t happen when they had money. And now they don’t have money, and so it’s even worse.

After the death of a 17-year old girl in Rio de Janeiro, Rivaldo wrote in frustration at the state of safety, health and politics in Rio, stating the following below a picture of the woman who was killed:

“Things are getting uglier here every day,” Rivaldo wrote. “I advise everyone with plans to visit Brazil for the Olympics in Rio — to stay home. You’ll be putting your life at risk here. This is without even speaking about the state of public hospitals and all the Brazilian political mess. Only God can change the situation in our Brazil.”

Rivaldo Instagram image
Rivaldo’s Instagram message from May 14.

On top of that, Dr Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa professor recently wrote in the Harvard Public Health Review that the Rio Olympics should be postponed for health safety reasons.

Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago.  Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.

Where is that light at the end of this tunnel?

sisyphus
Sisyphus

We’re only 8 months away from the launch of Olympiad XXXI. Olympic infrastructure plans are generally on time. Brazilians are generally excited. But the economy is taking a distinct dive.

Unemployment at nearly 10%, despite all of the Olympic-related construction, is the highest it has been in six years, when Rio was awarded the Olympics. Inflation is around 10%. The real has devalued by a third. Brazil’s credit rating dropped to “junk” status in September. And while international athletes will be flowing into Brazil next year, international investment has been flowing out of Brazil. This, as well as the plummeting price of oil in this petro-economy, have contributed heavily to the shrinking of the Brazilian economy again this quarter, the ninth quarter in a row.

The once booming member of the so-called BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China) is experiencing one of its worst economic crises in a while. How is this impacting the upcoming Olympics? There was a brief social media uproar when Rio Olympic officials announced the need to cut 30% of their budget, including air conditioning in the rooms of the Olympic Village, a decision that was quickly reversed after athletes balked.

It’s unclear what those cuts will impact, but big issues continue to concern…issues that will cost the country not only in expense but also in emotional well-being.

In addition to security in the areas of the Olympic activities, security along Brazil’s massive borders is a “big concern”, as a government auditor revealed “flaws” in the plans to control the 17,000 kilometer border that runs through remotes part of the Amazon and touches 10 other countries in Latin America.

The Associated Press has continued to test the waters planned for Olympic events and have found that “high viral and in some cases bacterial counts are found not just along shorelines where raw sewage runs in, but far offshore where athletes will compete in sailing, rowing and canoeing.” According to this AP article, Rio won the Olympic bid with a promise to clean up the city’s waterways, but “Brazilian officials now acknowledge that won’t happen.”

Garbage on the shore of Guanabara Bay_1June 2015
Guanabara Bay

 

On top of that, unprecedented levels of corruption in the government-

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The canoeists were most outspoken about plants that tangled with their oars and rudders

Source: Canoeists at Olympic test event complain about ‘red and brown’ polluted water, weeds at Rio 2016 venue

sailing in guanabara bay_AP

The head of sailing’s governing body threatened Saturday to move all Olympic sailing events out of polluted Guanabara Bay unless the water is cleaner and floating rubbish is removed.

http://globalnews.ca/news/2180470/sailing-officials-threatens-to-move-olympic-sailing-from-polluted-bay/

Cunha Canal that FLows into Guanabara Bay
The Cunha canal that flows into the highly polluted Guanabara Bay.

“Athletes in next year’s Summer Olympics here will be swimming and boating in waters so contaminated with human feces that they risk becoming violently ill and unable to compete in the games, an Associated Press investigation has found.”

So starts this report from Associated Press released July 30. The pollution is Guanabara Bay has been an issue over several decades, impacted by the growth of Rio de Janeiro and the inability of the country to keep up with the waste management needs of the population. In short, Guanabara Bay has become the cesspool of the Brazilian capitol. The AP report continues: “Extreme water pollution is common in Brazil, where the majority of sewage is not treated. Raw waste runs through open-air ditches to streams and rivers that feed the Olympic water sites. As a result, Olympic athletes are almost certain to come into contact with disease-causing viruses that in some tests measured up to 1.7 million times the level of what would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach.”

Garbage on the shore of Guanabara Bay_1June 2015
In this June 1, 2015 file photo, a discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

According to the report, athletes competing in canoeing, sailing, rowing, triathlon and open-water swimming are at risk. In this recent article from Nick Zaccardi of NBC OlympicTalk, US officials related to these sports are taking a realistic tone, stating that the safety of their athletes is the highest priority, that they are heavily encouraging the organizers to improve the conditions, and that they will follow the medical recommendations of experts.

“Athlete safety is always of the utmost importance to USA Triathlon, and we take this situation very seriously,” USA Triathlon CEO Rob Urbach said in a statement. “We are in direct conversation with our athletes and listening closely to any concerns. We will continue to work collaboratively with