From crime to green water, Olympics riddled with issues
RIO DE JANEIRO — Two questions dominated Olympic chatter on Monday: Did you see Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt celebrate his win in the 100-meter final? Did you hear US swimmer Ryan Lochte got robbed at gunpoint?
The Bolt spectacle represents all that the Rio Games aspire to be: thrilling, unifying, history-making sport at buzzing venues. The Lochte incident represents one of the latest examples of the problems plaguing the Olympics in and out of competition.
More than halfway through the Games, the problems keep mounting, and they show no signs of abating before the Closing Ceremony. The latest: The Olympic Broadcasting Service reported that seven people suffered minor injuries when a rope-mounted camera fell 30 feet into the venue-packed Olympic Park on Monday afternoon.
Every day, International Olympic Committee officials and Rio organizers address issues with security, venues, transportation, and ticket sales. It is a reality they appear eager to deny in some cases and minimize in others.
Lochte’s mugging in a cab that stopped to get gas was one high-profile example.
“I think we all know now and everybody saw the confirmation by the US swimmers that, indeed, they were held up when returning to the Olympic village,” said Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada Monday.
“We obviously regret that the violence has come so close to the athletes. We have requested that the security authorities make sure that everybody is safe everywhere in the city. We apologize to those involved. And, once again, we regret the fact that violence is still an issue in these Games.”
But IOC spokesman Mark Adams initially said reports of the robbery were “absolutely not true,” while Brazil sports minister Leonardo Picciani told the Associated Press that Lochte and the three other US swimmers he was with were “outside their places of competition and outside the appropriate time.” Picciani added that athletes haven’t faced problems at venues and the village, though that’s untrue.
In addition to athletes, coaches, and officials being robbed on at least three occasions in Ipanema, competitors have reported thefts of money, laptops, and clothes from the athletes’ village.
In light of the sports minister’s comments, Adams was asked Monday if he would recommend that the athletes stay within Olympic sites to avoid security problems, and he said, “No.” But the Lochte mugging prompted Australia to ban its athletes from Ipanema and Copacabana after dark.
“Everyone is impressed by the numbers — 85,000 police and military,” said Michael Hershman, CEO of the International Center for Sport Security. “What they’re not saying is how many gang members there are, how many narco traffickers and other crooks.
“I found the security a bit superficial. I was really surprised by what I considered a lack of training and professionalism, not paying close attention to what’s going on.”
Hershman, who was in Rio for the first eight days of the Olympics, added, “The Games are going very well. I attended a number of events, and the athletes are phenomenal. But it doesn’t make it any more comfortable for the visitors outside the venue areas.
“I understand the IOC and the organizers’ desire to put a good spin on the Games. But if they were more transparent about the problems, it would be a good learning experience and they would come off as more credible.”
The most visible problems at the venues have been the murky, smelly green water in the diving pool and the empty seats at many events; there were unoccupied sections, for instance, at the much-anticipated men’s 100-meter final and for big matches in beach volleyball.
Rio organizers have offered various explanations for those issues and came under fire for a lack of transparency and a slow response, particularly with the pool.
At one juncture, Andrada said the murky water was from a proliferation of algae due to heat and lack of wind. He also cited a decrease in alkalinity due to the number of people in and out of the pool. Finally, it was determined that a dump of hydrogen peroxide was to blame.
Officials maintained all along that the water was safe for competitors, though they did cancel a morning diving training session as they investigated the problem.
On Monday, six days after the problem arose, Andrada reported: “The picture I got this morning from the diving shows that the color is much better. And the technicians that are working there have informed us that in the 12-hour period from last night, conditions have improved dramatically in how it looks and feels.”
Multiple explanations have been offered for the empty seats: sponsors not using tickets, Brazilians leaving after Brazilian teams compete, fans leaving to buy food when venues run out.
Fans stuck in security lines and traffic also may be factors. A couple of hours before Bolt competed in the 100-meter semifinal Sunday night, traffic was backed up for miles on the road to the Olympic Stadium. The semifinal heats took place before a far-from-full stadium. There were still empty sections for the final.
At the London Summer Games in 2012, large sections of empty seats appeared in multiple venues, reportedly due to no-shows by members of the “Olympic family,” i.e. international federations, IOC officials, and sponsors. But organizers instituted a method for reclaiming and redistributing tickets at kiosks near venues. And venues quickly filled up.
What Rio officials may not want to acknowledge is that plenty of good seats remain available, even for prestige events such as track and field.
Three friends who traveled from the US to Rio for the track and field competition found it easy to purchase tickets online Friday and Saturday for track sessions Saturday and Sunday. They were even seated trackside Saturday morning and approached by the mother of American distance runner Molly Huddle to cheer for her daughter in the 10,000.
Ibukun Udje of Irving, Texas, enjoyed the action on the track, but said: “I feel like it should be way more packed. I didn’t think the empty seats was cool. It was disappointing.”
Transportation problems have affected reporters, athletes, coaches, and officials. Some buses have not shown up anywhere close to on schedule, or have gotten lost and taken passengers to the wrong destination.
The 50-meter freestyle semifinals in swimming were delayed Friday night because a bus with competitors went instead to the track and field stadium — about 35 minutes away from the athletes’ village, as opposed to the swimming venue, which is about 10 minutes away.
Both the Sochi and Vancouver Games had serious issues with buses but managed to adjust schedules and routes within the first few days and solve most of the problems. Rio organizers have adjusted routes and schedules, but the problems continue.
“I don’t think the problems will go away,” said Hershman. “I’m really hoping that the Games will be completed without anyone being seriously injured, hoping beyond hope that none of these athletes or visitors are killed before the Games end.”