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Rio 2016: The Calamity Games

When everything that can go wrong looks like it actually will, how much of a future can the Olympics have?

Workers inspect a set of Olympic Rings scheduled to be installed inside Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro on July 30, 2016. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Start with the Olympic Village, which is a shambles. “Not habitable,” says Team Australia. Spain and Sweden concur. The 2016 Olympic Games are just about to begin in Rio, and Rio isn’t ready.

Authorities are scrambling to bring on another 600 workers to finish construction in time for the games, which kick off later this week. There are hurdles to finishing everything from venues, hotels, and housing projects on time.

At least one athlete is arguing that everyone needs to accept these hiccups in stride. Megan Kalmoe, a two-time U.S. Olympian, says that critics need to “stop trying to ruin the Olympic Games for us.” She referred to the gnarly conditions of Rio’s waterways, which Brazilian authorities were unable to clean up before the start of the games, and how Rio’s failures shouldn’t overshadow the athletes’ triumphs.

“I will row through shit for you, America,” Kalmoe writes.

The shit doesn’t stop at the water’s edge, though. The 2016 Summer Olympics promises to dredge up more of it than any other games in recent memory. Tens of thousands of protesters have already taken to the streets in Rio and São Paulo in advance of the August 4 opening ceremony. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s term may not last through the closing ceremony; her impeachment will serve as the narrative backdrop to an event broadcast on billions of television screens.

This is to say nothing of the nightmarish prospect of a Zika outbreak during the games—a legitimate concern, official assurances notwithstanding. In May, the Harvard Public Health Review put it in no uncertain terms: “The 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.”

Hosting a competent Olympics already seems to be out of the question for 2016. But that may be the least of Rio’s problems.

Protests will be difficult to ignore

Protesters take part in a demonstration to demand the impeachment of suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in Rio de Janeiro on July 31, 2016. (Mariana Bazo/Reuters)

What may end up becoming one of the enduring symbols of the 2016 Games happened on Wednesday, as protesters clashed with police in Angra dos Reis, a coastal paradise just west of Rio, during an Olympic relay parade. The torch was reportedly extinguished during the melee, and the runner whisked away to safety. The games have yet to begin and the Olympic fire has already gone out. Isn’t that some shit?

Demonstrations in Brazil are targeting the Olympics as a proxy for a range of crushing frustrations over the country’s political disorder and economic collapse. The protesters who struck the Olympic relay, for example, were frustrated teachers who haven’t been paid by the state. And they are not alone.

“We welcome all of you and wish you a nice stay in our country,” said Casé Carvalho, a Rio bureaucrat, in a speech to media during the protest. “Enjoy the Olympic games, because we are paying a high price for it!”

The lapses in government that have beset Brazil politically are key to the ways that Rio 2016 promises to falter. Brazil is suffering a recession, a crisis sparked by widespread corruption, and a structural–constitutional dilemma that has earned the name “coalitional presidentialism." The Olympics seems like a perfect device for exploiting the problems in Brazil.

More than just Brazil’s political future in question

Rio de Janeiro's transport secretary, Rodrigo Vieira (right), visits one of the city’s new subway stations in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood on June 30, 2016. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

Brazil’s national catastrophe will outlast the end of the games on August 21. But it is unclear whether the Olympics will survive Rio.

Viewers may come to recognize the problem as one for the Olympic Games, not for Brazil alone. Hosting the Olympics is, well, the Olympics of governance, requiring totalistic planning efforts and expenditures so massive that host cities rarely see any return on their investment. Rio may show that hosting the Olympics is not merely a bad bet for a city, like a gamble with a not-great payoff; a mega-effort at the Olympic scale can expose or deepen political rifts or turn on the faucet for corruption.

Has it all turned to shit in Rio? Transportation was supposed to be the lasting promise of the Rio games. Around the Rings reports that the Rio state government completed its $3 billion, five-station metro expansion with just one week to spare. Still, subway workers in Rio are preparing to strike on August 4 unless Rio agrees to a nearly 10 percent hike in wages. If they follow through on their threat, the brand new line, which is only available to ticketed fans and participating athletes and staff during the games, could go unused.

There are no apparent contingency plans in place for moving visitors around the city if Rio subway workers do go on strike—none. Some 300,000 passengers are expected to ride the metro each day during the games. Forcing all those visitors to take other forms of transportation, on streets where major protests are already unfolding, could stir a scene unlike anything else in Olympic history.

The subway expansion is also unlikely to open fully to the public in September without triggering another wave of scandal and recrimination. Queiroz Galvão and Odebrecht Infraestrutura, the two firms that led the expansion, are implicated in the massive Petrobras kickback scheme that has unmoored Brazilian politics. One upshot to mega-events like the Olympics is that they spur the mega-capital—both financial and political—that it takes to build major infrastructure upgrades. But another political scandal for Brazil would undercut that benefit as well as the promise of future infrastructure spending.

A warning to potential host cities

Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes visits the construction site of the X-Park at Deodoro Sports Complex on April 2, 2015. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

The delayed status of so many projects certainly casts doubt on the ability of authorities to deliver on the promise of turning Rio’s so-called “nomadic architecture” into useful assets once the games are finished. The handball and Paralympic goalball venue, for example, is destined to become a school after the games, but it’s far from clear in the current context how authorities will do so quickly or competently.

Preemptive failure appears to have already beset the 2020 Tokyo Games. Back in June, Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe, who was widely hailed as a strong host for the games, resigned over a scandal involving the misuse of political funds. His predecessor quit in a similar funding scandal. Masuzoe’s disgrace is the latest in a series of accusations of corruption in the Tokyo games. His successor, Yuriko Koike, will be consumed by undoing the political and economic damage that the games have already caused that city.

Both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics are now subjects of corruption investigations, the results of which could ultimately undermine the integrity of the biggest mega-event in the world. Some Western cities already seem to have come to the conclusion that hosting the games is no longer in their interests, while autocracies are lining up for more. Even under the best of circumstances, wading through excrement seems to be the price that modern cities now pay to host the Olympic Games. We may be about to see the worst of such circumstances. Who is going to want to host the games after all this?

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.