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ON THE OLYMPICS

Critics of Rio de Janeiro Olympics look prescient

Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Hill near the Maracana stadium which is set to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

AFP/Getty Images

Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Hill near the Maracana stadium which is set to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The critics who said that the International Olympic Committee made a foolish decision when it awarded the 2016 summer edition to Rio de Janeiro appear to have been prescient. With the Games less than 2½ years away the organizers still haven’t started construction on the second-largest venue cluster in the Deodoro district and still are working on centerpieces like the athletes’ village, main stadium, and natatorium.

The IOC’s coordination commission, which wrapped up its sixth visit last week, warned that there’s “no margin for any further slippages” and top government leaders will be sitting down on Thursday with the key Olympic stakeholders to straighten out responsibilities. “At some point . . . they have to decide who is doing what,” said Gilbert Felli, the IOC’s executive director for the Games.

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Even with allowances for Brazil’s easygoing culture, that decision should have been made shortly after Rio was named the first South American host five years ago. Though the city had pulled off a successful Pan American Games in 2007, Rio faced a staggering to-do list for 2016, much of it for infrastructure. That was on top of preparations for this summer’s soccer World Cup, which still aren’t completed.

The Cup already had been awarded to Brazil when the IOC made its choice in 2009, picking Rio over Tokyo (the 2020 host), Madrid, and Chicago and the Lords of the Rings should have known that the country was unlikely to handle both events in a timely fashion. Now it’s too late to switch to a backup site. The first test event, in sailing, is scheduled for August in Guanabara Bay, which competitors have likened to a sewer.

While there were similar concerns about Athens’ pace of preparations for the 2004 Games that turned out marvelously, Rio has less time to do more. “There is not a single day to lose,” IOC president Thomas Bach said last month, and there are fewer of them now.

IOC member Nawal El Moutawakel, who heads the coordination commission that watchdogs Rio’s progress, at last has had her fill of optimistic assurances from government officials. “Good intentions are worthless if they are not backed by effective leadership and good governance,” she said during her visit, stressing that the Games are “an extremely complex task with many moving parts and multiple constituencies.”

Rio should follow Sochi’s lead, El Moutawakel suggested. What last month’s hosts accomplished, creating a winter playland out of a summer resort, indeed was astounding. All it took was two things that Rio doesn’t have — $50 billion in petrocash and a strongman like Vladimir Putin to make sure that everyone falls in line and stays on schedule.

The World Cup alone is a daunting undertaking for the Brazilians, who not only have had to build or remodel a dozen stadia from Sao Paulo to the Amazon jungle but also have had to do an enormous amount of work on airports, highways, public transport, and hotels. The $11 billion price tag infuriated protesters, a million of whom took to the streets in more than 100 cities last summer contending that the money would have been better spent on housing, health care, and education.

The Olympics have added $15 billion-and-counting to the tab. Not only has Rio had to build or renovate nearly three dozen venues in four clusters, it also is undertaking an extensive waterfront project involving roads, tunnels, sidewalks, utilities, and sanitation plants.

The Summer Games essentially are an urban renewal project with a side order of badminton and dressage, which is one reason why cities bid for them. Hosting an Olympics means fast-tracking expensive major projects that otherwise would be (or have been) on drawing boards for decades.

It worked nicely for Barcelona in 1992. It may yet work for Rio but, as El Moutawakel observed, the deadlines “are very, very tight”, with the required test events scheduled to begin in July of next year.

When Rio bid for the Games, its pitch was that the IOC couldn’t keep ignoring South America. “It is time to light the Olympic cauldron in a tropical country,” then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told the members before their Copenhagen vote. When Rio won in a third-round landslide over Madrid, Lula declared that Brazil had been “upgraded from a second-class country to a first-class country.”

Yet a five-ringed stamp doesn’t make it so. Brazil may be a behemoth of more than three million square miles and 200 million people but it’s still a developing nation with a gross domestic product smaller than France’s. There’s a good reason why the Games never had been granted to South America or Africa — few, if any, of their countries can stage the world’s biggest sporting event, much less its two biggest, within two years.

Skeptics predicted that five years ago. Up ahead, with the clock ticking, looms the largest crash construction project since Putin’s sleighride-by-the-sea. If the Deodoro cluster isn’t done in time, the organizers might have to move seven sports to Ipanema. Beach mountain biking, anyone?

John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.
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